Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Public Input: What it Means

Scott York, Chair of Loudoun Board of Supervisors, articulated, at a meeting some time ago, that voters vote elected officials into office and by doing so they trust the elected official to make decisions on their behalf. His assertion at that meeting was that public hearings are meaningless because, by voting a person into office, you have already made your voice known. 

A recent letter to the editor, by one of my colleagues, included this statement: 
Further, it is unreasonable to assert that any one group represents the interest of the entire Town. We do not have a community vote for every item before council, but a representative system where the people elect governing members who are chosen to make reasonable decisions that are in the best interest of the Town as a whole, not a subset of the resident population or group with a particular view.

Here is my main problem with this type of thinking:  A vast majority may not come forward and say anything, and that is typical with our busy lives and schedules. But does that make the voice of those who write or speak out less valid? Our new Blue Ridge Supervisor was elected by a mere 15% of the eligible voting population. Do we relegate all of our voices to that 15% for the next four years and refuse to hold public hearings? Of course not.  In the 2014 Town Election, broken down by council member, we each were voted in by roughly 16% of the eligible voting population. Do we ignore the other 84%. 

Now, does this mean that someone who did not vote in an election has no say in the public process or governance going forward?  I am sure the majority of us would answer no. In a democracy, it is the public that determines where it wants to go, and the role of our elected officials and staff is to get them there. The Town Survey is an excellent indicator of where town residents want to go.

When it comes to public input, I have seen the separation of speakers into out-of-town or in-town residents. The sole purpose of delineating a person as an in-town resident or one that lives outside of our limits is to diminish their voice.  Perhaps when developers speak up at our meetings and declare their love of Purcellville, we should ask them where they live. Do we give their input more weight because they own a business or a parcel of land, or both?  As Town residents of Purcellville, we not only own land here, we live our daily lives here. Everything that occurs in this town affects our families, our schools, traffic, taxes, and our quality of life. The developer who speaks at our meetings only has his bottom line affected. Why does his voice continue to hold seemingly more weight?  

Public participation will not succeed if it is not genuine. If the decision makers use it as a way to sell a pre-determined plan or solution and do not genuinely care about stakeholder concerns, then the whole process is suspect. Public participation is not a one-time event.  

With regards to the length of time for such processes, transparency and accountability should always trump administrative expediency. 

Then there are those who cling to the myth of the 'Silent Majority.'  In a democratic society, those who choose to remain silent also elect to be ignored. Politicians use the idea of the 'silent majority' to convince their opposition that they are backed by those ready to spring into action. It's like filling Fireman's Field with ghosts and convincing ourselves that we can hear them clapping for our team. 

If a 'silent majority' exists in Purcellville, what prevents them from being heard? Perhaps, they are afraid. Intimidated? Bullied? But how could this be so if they are the majority? If they are not heard because they do not speak up, then their presence cannot be used “in absentia” to win an argument.

If a silent majority is to be given legitimacy in this community, then the “vocal minority” who exercise their democratic rights by being heard, who act out their responsibilities as voters, taxpayers, volunteers, or political candidates should not be intimidated or diminished. If such a 'silent' power exists, it’s time the people who are part of to speak up and help shape the future of this community. We need their voices, energy, and vision. What we do not need is political manipulation camouflaged as meaningless rhetoric.

With regards to the Zoning District Use Changes being discussed tonight, I believe the town has had an open dialogue with the public.  Three public input sessions were held, and there have been numerous opportunities for public input since.  By holding these public meetings and information sessions, we gain many benefits to involving the public:  
  • Information and ideas on public issues.
  • Public Support for planning decisions.
  • Create good will which can carry over to future decisions.
  • Spirit of cooperation and trust between the agency and the public.

I attended most of these public meetings, and much of the residential public commentary toward these changes was negative, as have been the many emails the council has received since. Input from local businesses and churches led to the revision or repeal of many of the changes.   

We should open up our minds to all manner of input at all times.  Elected officials are supposed to put constituent interests above their own. I still can't fathom how these zoning use changes do that.    

Monday, November 9, 2015

Zoning district use changes as a cause for concern......

The Purcellville Town Council has a meeting Tuesday, November 10th and will be discussing and possibly voting on the zoning district use changes being proposed.  

I have struggled with this one specifically since the intent has been to simplify the code. I agree with removing duplicative terms and uses and perhaps condensing districts and truly simplifying the code. Simplify means to reduce and yet many uses are being added to areas where they currently are not an allowable use. Some are by-right and others by SUP (Special Use Permit). By-Right refers to projects that are permitted under current zoning and do not require any legislative action by the Council. They are approved administratively and do not require public hearings.

Some of these uses have been rejected by residents and the planning commission during recent applications submitted to the town (Catoctin Towne Center). In a town as small as Purcellville, many uses will have a significant impact. I have read comments that we need to remove SUPs because they cost too much for applicants, which can be $2K. While that is understandable, who does that benefit the most? The applicant, but it denies the primary stakeholders (residents) in our town say in our planning process. Who is asking for this removal? The developers and their land use attorneys. That is a small price to pay to make sure that residents are protected, and the assets of our town are as well.

How does this protect us? If a drive-thru establishment is by-right and it is built and causes traffic back-ups and more traffic on a particular road, the town will have to pay to mitigate this issue. If a large residential development is built by-right and creates traffic or generates more students than projected, we are all forced to pay to reduce this problem. Both area high schools will be over capacity the year after next.

The developer of by-right uses is not obligated in any way to produce a proffer to the town. A proffer is an offer by a landowner during the rezoning process to perform an act or donate money, product, or services to justify the propriety of a proposed rezoning. Our town debt is nearly at its max, and we can't afford to reduce or negate our ability to negotiate proffers from potential development. One of my colleagues stated that these proffers are minuscule. However, I object to this statement especially when the Catoctin Creek Apartment developer was willing to proffer $1Million for a 20-acre development.

Some of my colleagues argue that we need these developments to equalize our water/sewer rates or tax rates. If growth paid for itself, the County would not be at its debt max and neither would the town. It is a fools game to think that growth is going to reduce any costs to residents. All development comes with a price tag, via increased police, fire/rescue, utility maintenance, etc.

For a few decades, city planners have swapped long-term obligations for short-term cash, expanding at an unsustainable rate and developing land they could never afford to maintain.

For example, a street section is in need of repair or resurfacing, which will consist of milling up and replacing the asphalt. The development along the road has stagnated in favor of new growth on the periphery of town. Because of this, over the estimated life of the new street, the town may expect to collect a total of $27/foot for road repairs. The cost for repairs will run between $80 and $100 per foot.

I have been reading a blog called Strong Towns for quite some time.  They advocate for a change of thinking in how we develop and to shed the "dead ideas" of the suburban era, including these: 
  • That local governments can grow without considering the public’s return on investment. Being blind to the financial productivity of our places has led to inefficient use of public infrastructure investments and allowed local governments to assume overwhelming, long-term financial obligations for maintaining infrastructure. 
  • That local budget problems can be solved by creating more growth. More growth in the same unproductive pattern will only increase our economic problems. What is needed is an approach that improves our use of existing infrastructure investments.
  • That attracting a large employer is the key to local economic prosperity. In an age of globalization, this strategy may provide short-term gains for some local governments, but it is ultimately a race to the financial bottom. 
  • That property owners can develop their property as they see fit while at the same time obligating the public to maintain the new infrastructure.This type of indirect subsidy creates enormous long-term financial obligations for taxpayers, increasing local taxes and reducing local competitiveness.
Their recommendations include: 
  • A stop to infrastructure projects that expand a community’s long-term maintenance obligations.
  • A full accounting of all short and long-term financial obligations local governments have assumed for maintaining infrastructure.
  • The adoption of strategies to improve the public’s return on investment and improve the use of existing infrastructure.
  • Significant changes in the standard engineering approach to road and street design, shifting emphasis away from increasing automobile-oriented mobility and toward increasing pedestrian mobility within neighborhoods while eliminating accesses and intersections along auto corridors.

Under the current pattern of growth, the only way to pay for projects is with more growth. That is the definition of a Ponzi scheme.

I hope you will share this post and encourage you to please attend our council meeting.