By. Neil Williamson, President
Albemarle County’s efforts to be more business friendly just took a huge step backwards. Sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it and when it is said. If future public hearings go the same way as Tuesday night’s hearing, it will put a chill on economic vitality.
The July 31st Albemarle County Planning Commission meeting included a public hearing regarding the 5th Street Station Shopping Center in Southern Albemarle.
It is important to note that the Free Enterprise Forum has no position on this, or any other specific application.
We do however have a policy issue to the manner in which applications, and applicants, are treated.
For those who have not attended an Albemarle Public Hearing the order of business is as follows:
1. Introduction of the Application by staff reading a staff report which has previously been provided to the applicant
2. Questions from the Board/Commission of staff regarding the presentation
3. Open Public Hearing with Applicant introduction and reply to issues raised in the staff report (10 minutes)
4. Public Comment (3 minutes each)
5. Applicant rebuttal to public comments (5 minutes)
6. Close Public Hearing
7. Discussion by Board/Commission
Additional questions of staff regularly occur during the discussion phase of the hearing. At such time the chair asks the appropriate staff member to come to speak to the specific issue raised. Rarely, is the applicant offered the same opportunity to address the question.
In this case, while the majority of the staff provided solid context to specific questions posed by the Commission with one stark exception. Albemarle County Engineer Glenn Brooks was argumentative and combative regarding this specific application.
As the Planning Commission worked through their discussion, Brooks continued to get up from the audience, move to the podium and insert himself (uninvited) into their deliberations. Such behavior would never be accepted by an applicant. The Free Enterprise Forum is disappointed that Chairman Cal Morris did not stop this behavior during the meeting. In this case, Morris failed in his responsibility to control the meeting by failing to control the staff.
In addition, while Morris did provide this applicant a limited number of opportunities to respond; Brooks dominated the conversation, by not waiting to be invited.
Beyond the inappropriate participation in discussion, the tenor of Brooks’ comments were sarcastic and antagonistic.
When the applicant’s presentation was still on the display screen during the Planning Commission discussion, Brooks said:
“You should take down that pretty picture, they haven’t proffered it”.
Regarding a Planning Commissioner’s comment regarding recommending a critical slopes approval (against his advice) Brooks stated,
“Well if you want to give them an empty slate”.
British Poet Samuel Butler famously said “Neither irony or sarcasm is argument”. The Free Enterprise Forum recognizes significant issues exist between Albemarle County and this applicant. Notwithstanding any of the important issues on the table, we are troubled by the process as well as Brooks’ actions and comments.
In the end, the Planning Commission unanimously moved the application forward to the Board of Supervisors. But this application is not the issue.
In our nine years of covering the Albemarle County Planning Commission, we can’t ever remember a county employee ever behaving in this manner.
Brooks’ presentation and demeanor created an “us vs. them” adversarial relationship with the applicant. After establishing such a hostile environment one can imagine some reluctance on the part of applicants to upset the same person [the County Engineer] who will be responsible for signing off on their engineering and site plans.
While we have no reason to question the technical expertise or qualifications of the County Engineer but we do believe that his Planning Commission performance brings his public policy skills into question.
We were encouraged to see both Scottsville Supervisor Christopher Dumler and Community Development Director Mark Graham in attendance at the meeting. This will enable them to answer our questions below with a firsthand understanding of the issue.
- Is this the manner all applications in Albemarle will now proceed?
- Does staff have an open mike policy during Planning Commission discussion?
- How can applicants prepare for challenges that have not been enumerated in the staff report?
- How will Albemarle County respond to this process challenge?
- Will they at all?
- Will such action or inaction result in a better community?
Only time will tell.
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org