Friday, February 15, 2008

Comments on state-of-the-city address: Propose some really sustainable ordinances before you retire!

This red-dirt disaster bordered by Huntsville Road, Stone Bridge Road and Dead Horse Mountain Road might have been prevented by more scrutiny by staff members and council and mayor and planning commissioners and the PUBLIC before approval.
I visited a few neighbors on Friday and asked what was being built there. They didn't know and said they weren't informed or talked with before it happened. They all mentioned experiencing various levels of anger, frustration and significant discomfort since the earth-moving and tree-dozing began.
Regardless of whether the planning and engineering staff looked at the plans closely before approval or studied the site well enough beforehand, having a city inspector visit such sites once a day (and big ones like this in a critical point overlooking a floodplain and with a small stream running through it and wonderfully fertile and absorbent soil and many trees and vegetation should be visited at least twice every day after approval and until construction is complete) could have prevented a lot of the damage.
A city should never approve a single site more than its building inspectors, watershed inspectors and tree and landscape inspectors can visit daily.

The following part of Mayor Dan Coody's state-of-the-city address concerns me in several ways.

"If a few individuals oppose any part of the project we will thwart the will of all the citizens who designed the plan, all the creative massaging of the Planning and Engineering staff, the citizen’s subcommittees, and the Planning Commission. In being hyper responsive to the individual, we completely discount the majority.

The ripple effects are serious. The developer, who is risking millions of private dollars in the project, just had his costs go up, making the price of everything in the project increase. That is bad for the consumer. The chances for financial success of the project are diminished. This is bad for the city and the developer, and it erodes the confidence of our city staff. It teaches the developer to avoid anything that is creative or innovative. It shows the developer how much easier, cheaper, and faster it would be just to do the same old sprawl-inducing, cookie-cutter, unimaginative development the public says, the staff says, and the Plan says we do not want."

The first paragraph needs some documentation. What problem-free project has been suppressed by the City Council because of a "few citizens' comments?

Dozens of long-time, highly respected people spoke to the council in opposition to the massive hotel planned for Dickson Street across from the post office. The council approved it. Only the filing of a strong lawsuit and the fact that the developer was about to be bankrupted by his other pie-in-the-sky projects killed that one, which the staff had recommended.

A project to build apartments off N. College on a wooded slope near Ozark Natural Foods was passed despite some of the city's leading citizens' attending a council meeting and speaking out. Even Gus Jones, the widow of Fayetteville's most famous architect and one of the few who might have designed some project to go in that forest without removing the forest spoke, against it.

Ruskin Heights drew opposition from fine people who live nearby. It passed regardless of their statements.

Someone please list projects that were killed by the council because of the objection of only a few people? If you can docement those, I'll educate myself by going to those sites and confirming that there was no good reason or there was a good reason.

When a group of people put their dignity on the line to speak against a project, the reasons are usually obvious. And, if some of those people live nearby, their objections should be considered.

Nobody forces developers to buy land and pay for plans to development it. More than half probably have the audacity to try to get approval of plans on property they do not own but have negotiated a period during which they can buy it if their plan is approved. And most of those do not have the money to buy it. They have a promise from a bank that a loan will be granted if they get the plans approved.

It is hard to take their pleas of HAVING to build a massive, intense project to meet their goal of profitability as of any significance.

What happened in the past three years is that many banks wish they hadn't granted those loans, possibly some of the developers wish they hadn't made the effort and, in the case of many such projects that actually have been partially or even fully completed and a lot of previously inactive potential NIMBIES have realized they should have joined the crowd saying "not in my backyard" years ago.

When the developers first came to the Town Branch neighborhood in 2003 with obviously environmentally threatening plans, many residents said it would do no good to speak out because we were a low-income neighborhood. But the way high-income neighborhood protests have been disregarded in recent years, it seems that Fayetteville City Government has become an equal-opportunity supporter of neighborhood destruction.

I don't believe the council can be blamed for allowing all these bad developments. The pressure on the staff to recommend things comes from the top of the administration and ignoring the recommendations of the paid staff is often the wrong thing for the council to do. The council members should not have to do the homework themselves.
But the result of what the council approve remains their responsibility.
I really hoped that Mayor Coody's decision not to run again was an indication he had decided to follow the lead of the mayor of Greenland, who has said publicly that only a one-term mayor can do the right thing. I assumed that the decision not to run again was Dan's way of allowing himself the opportunity to demonstrate that a two-term-only mayor can also do the right thing.

But the idea Dan's saying that REAL people's objections to projects are always less important than staff recommendations is ludicrous. The staff members seldom have approved a bad project and then bought a home to live in next door to it. And both staff members and planning commissioners often have to recommend or approve projects with flaws they can easily recognize because the current rules that bind them are antiquated. And many of the new-urbanist ideas that the staff understands and recommend work fine on flat ground with no existing timber and no wetland to manage. They don't work on our wooded mountainsides and the wetland and riparian zones of streams in the headwaters of the White River and the Illinois River.

When I think of the city and things that benefit the city, I think of the people who already live here and the existing buildings and trees and other living things. And I believe we have seen council members more and more put extra time into homework such as visiting proposed development sites and holding Ward meetings to offer neighbors a chance to discuss the problems that the staff may not have considered or that the administration may not have heard about.

Most if not all the current council members recognize that many projects didn't start out right and are looking to take steps to fix mistakes such as Aspen Ridge (Brenda Thiel and Adella Gray in Ward one — see links at right for Town Branch Neighborhood blogspot and Flickr photos on Town Branch watershed and Town Branch Neighborhood) and Red Oak Park (Shirley Lucas and Lioneld Jordan in Ward Four — see Red Oak Park links at right and Flickr photos on Red Oak Park.

More important, members of the council are taking steps to see that the staff learns from those mistakes what changes in the approval process can prevent such disasters in the future. I am familiar with those efforts, but I suspect that residents of other neighborhoods can cite examples of such efforts by the council members in their wards. Please share examples you many know of.


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