House the Masses
So our neighborhood was looking to stop a rezoning effort that will result in a monolithic, “workforce housing” apartment building being planted at the end of our culdesac. Fair enough – folks gotta live somewhere, right? Well yeah – but we thought we’d go the extra mile and, not only accept the apartment dwellers into our neighborhood, but attempt to do so in a way that would preserve some semblance of quality of life. I.e., we thought a commercial presence as part of the development would foster a better sense of community, both for us and the new arrivals.
Want the good news or the bad news first?
The good news is that our existing B5 zoning designation provides for exactly what I described above. So can’t we just trade the 54 unit building for, say, a 36 unit building and throw in a nice coffee shop, or deli, or whatever? Not so fast – you haven’t heard the bad news yet.
The bad news is that such a plan would be an imperfect match for what the local behemoth developer has in mind – namely, to pack in as many bodies as possible. Getting tenants for the commercial space amounts to an annoyance and degree of uncertainty that threatens his profit margin, so why bother if you can get local government to back you up? I mean, with local initiatives like Destination Medical Center, housing potential workers like cord wood is the name of the game. You mention DMC to the local governmental bodies and say “jump,” and they will surely respond with “how high?”
So a few weeks back the developer pitched the idea of of swapping our idyllic B5 zoning designation to that of R3 to the boys and girls down at the Planning and Zoning Commission. That’s the cord wood option that guarantees an “us versus them” attitude in the absence of any space for the new and established communities to connect. I do need to be fair here, however – the developer did give us a 10 day notice of a neighborhood meeting to discuss what he and his cronies downtown have no doubt been working on for months on end – the rezoning initiative. So I admit that we had an entire 10 days to make the rest of the neighborhoods aware of this impending tsunami (by law only houses within 500 feet get a notification, but they went the extra mile and notified all 4 or 5 of us within 600 feet) and to become planning and zoning experts, not to mention experts on Roberts Rules of Order (we’ll see why later.)
Soldiering on, our first request at the Planning and Zoning Commission meeting was a request to delay the decision given the minimal time we had to research the issue vs what the developer had available to him. I made that request myself, as a matter of fact, and was still beaming over my moment in the public spotlight when it dawned on me that my request was completely ignored… insofar as the response was “Thank you, next?” That pretty much set the tone for what was to come, and not surprisingly, the Commission sided with the developer unanimously.
This is where parliamentary procedure and Roberts Rules of Order come in. The meeting essentially goes like this:
- Present the topic
- Listen to public comments
- Discussion among the Commission
- Act on the proposal
The sad part is if that, during step 4, if it becomes clear one or more Commission member is sorely misinformed or making a grievous logic error of some type, you are not empowered to intervene in any way. So if, during step 4, and Commission member were to say:”I have to rule in the developer’s favor because the sun comes out at night and the moon shines during the day,” none of the unwashed masses in attendance would be able to utter one syllable in protest. And so it was that the Commission acted exclusively on some very dubious (at best) “staff findings” that we were unable to contest, one of which is covered here. Love that.
Off to City Council
And so it was that our next stop would be City Council – where Planning and Zoning Commission decisions have been know to be reversed with reasonable frequency. We were advised to talk to as many City Council members as possible, so we assembled in to “hit squads” and managed to cover the entire City Council. The conversations all seemed very helpful and frank. The amount of time they were willing to spend with us was very impressive. As a result of these conversations and several neighborhood meetings, we felt like we might be fairly well prepared to get the Planning and Zoning decision reversed, although our conversations with the builder were somewhat inconsistent and surreal.
We arrived as a small army at the council chambers slightly less naive than previously, armed with a PowerPoint presentation peppered with photos of cute kids and what we thought was some pretty compelling information. Throughout our talks with Council members, they emphasized that our approach – i.e., embracing the new construction, but in a way that would retain the spirit of the B5 zone for the sake of everyone involved, was unique. We were definite not a “NOT IN OUR BACK YARD” lynch mob. Here’s a shot of some of us while waiting for the first few hours of unrelated hearings to finish,
Round about 10 PM we finally approached the podium. Our three presenters did a great job, despite the fact that our intended PowerPoint presentation needed to be gutted within just a few hours of the meeting based on the developer basically telling us he was now less inclined to negotiate and more interested in playing hardball.
The details are pretty gruesome and available here starting at the 2:51:13 point for anyone with masochistic tendencies or for CSPAN junkies.
In my view the crux of the problem goes all the way back to my previous rant on how little notification we received before the approval process got under way. I say this because it was clear to me that, given the time, money, effort, lobbying and administrative attention to detail the developer had devoted to the proposal thus far (utterly under the public radar,) not giving him what he wanted or something extremely close was essentially off the table. At one point a Councilman even said “You realize that if we keep the B5 zoning designation, the developer will not be able to implement his plan, right?” with the same gravity as if he were saying “You realize the earth will explode, right?”
So in the end, wittingly or unwittingly, it all amounted to giving the developer what he wanted. The only question was whether or not it would be under the guise of a “compromise” solution or not. The Council’s last gasp at being able to brandish this as a “negotiated” deal was throwing the B2 Zoning designation out there as an option – something that nobody in the room even claimed to understand. Our understandable response of “Where did this come from? How can we consent to this when we don’t know anything about it?” was taken as an unwillingness to compromise. Ironically, the Council’s unwillingness to talk about possible B5 variances, which might involve a few more meetings and push the developer closer to his state funding deadline, was evidently not identified an aversion to compromise on their part.
We lost on a 4 to 3 vote. Stay tuned for more fun… the appeals process or possibly a Mayoral veto is beckoning…