November 14, 2014
Mayor and Commissioners,
I commented on the proposed “visioning” process at the November 10, 2014 commission meeting, liking the proposal to a political massage parlor. I know your intentions are good and I apologize for the intensity of my concerns, but I have seen this “visioning” picture before and it is not pretty.
A few years ago we spent, as I recall, over $400,000 (including costs of contract termination with the consultant) on something called “Planning the Possibilities.” This prior “visioning” process too was intended to seek community consensus on development. I participated in this process with the hope that “community consensus” was some tangible object that could be conjured from the cauldron of public input. “Planning the Possibilities” became a political football that wasted time and effort of many citizens and cost taxpayers over $400,000, excluding potentially millions of dollars in opportunity costs associated with applying that citizen and staff energy to productive pursuits.
Given the goals and intent of the process you moved forward on November 10th, you are on a path to repeating that experience. I am all for Kumbayah. However, there is no evidence from past efforts here and elsewhere that irrational conflicts over development can be overcome by consultants and steering committees. The evidence is, to the contrary, that efforts to massage unfounded fears and reactionary sentiments only re-enforces the social acceptability of such behavior, compounding the problem. The current proposed visioning process is in direct response to a small set of people promoting unfounded fears and reactionary sentiments among their fellow citizens without the benefit of accurate information. The appropriate response to these circumstances is leadership by the commission to educate our citizens on the facts of the development process and our rules, not to defer responsibility to an unaccountable process that is sure to be politicized. I point to Commissioner Cooper’s efforts at the November 10th meeting to control the “visioning” process in advance of any independent professional guidance as evidence that the process has already been politicized and that we are headed for a repeat of earlier costly mistakes.
Some citizens will always believe in conspiracy theories and mistrust their elected officials, spreading poison in the community. The only effective antidote is education and clear communication of the realities we face as a city and as a community. The city can more constructively evaluate proposed development projects and our development rules by appealing to our citizen’s sense of reason, than by pandering to or exploiting their fears.
I suggest the commission have the city prepare and distribute to all residents a primer on our development process. While there will always be political differences on where private property rights begin and end, there are State statutes and US Supreme Court rulings that define the width and shading of the gray areas. Citizens need to understand that these laws and our codes pertain equally to their rights to improve their single family home and to commercial property owner’s rights to improve their property. Citizens need to understand where the city has effective sway over development proposals and where it does not, the meaning of “entitlement,” “conditional use,” and “zoning.” Citizens need to understand that denial of any particular development that complies in all material respects with zoning rules applicable to the property has legal consequences and cost to the taxpayers. Citizens need to understand that a developer has the legal right to apply for any project and any zoning change within the bounds of our rules, and that the act of submission of a development application does not bias the approval process in one direction or another. Citizens need to know that while the city can define boundaries through zoning rules, developers, with only modest city leverage, determine how their money is spent within those boundaries. Citizens need to know that we already have a “vision” for commercial development that is defined by our current rules; that the zoning applicable to most of our commercial areas already comes with an expected outcome which we see in what actually exists.
Alternative “visions” need to be offered in substantive terms for consideration. For example: Should the city encourage more commercial development of the scale and character of Hannibal Square and less like K-Mart shopping center?
Citizens need clear understanding of the factual context in order to (1) accurately judge the credibility of what they are told by others and (2) make informed judgments as to their support or objection to proposed development and proposed changes to our development rules.
These educational materials should reference specific project approvals, noting histories of prior approvals, where the rules have been applied, the extent of variances granted, and where the developer has agreed to improvements greater than is required by the rules. Such factual history provides a context within which citizens can fairly judge the reasonableness of these approvals for themselves, as contrasted with unsupported claims of a few inflamed citizens.
Leadership from our city commission is needed to help citizens distinguish fact from fiction, reality from fear. I urge you to change the scope of the current “visioning” initiative to focus on education or drop the current initiative entirely in favor of an educational initiative. The more citizens understand our development realities, unfounded fears and reactionary sentiments will fade in influence to the benefit of thoughtful consideration and productive changes.
Regards, Pete Weldon