The Public Engagement Paradox

By. Neil Williamson, President

If a significant community engagement process happens and the project still gains approval, does the process have value?  What if the project is rejected out of hand, or the density reduced, then does it have value?  I anticipate it depends where you sit.  Please let me explain.

NIMBY-sign-0411bA week ago Sunday (July 3) I was surprised to find myself nodding in agreement with an opinion piece in The Washington Post written by Stewart Schwartz, the Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.  The piece entitled “Stop saying no to development in your neighborhood”  included the following:

Yet wherever infill and walkable, transit-accessible development are proposed, existing residents are either saying no to development or forcing it to be cut back so much that the region isn’t producing the new housing we need.

Some of the most strident opposition comes from our wealthiest and most fortunate neighborhoods. This is the case even though these neighborhoods have benefited as their property values have soared by virtue of convenient access to Metro and all of the jobs, restaurants, grocery stores and services that transit-oriented development brings.

It is a good thing that people are passionate and actively engaged in planning decisions in our communities. We need everyone at the table, and we need to pay serious attention to good design, transportation, public spaces, affordable housing and other community benefits. We need to ensure we balance development, historic preservation, public parks and other community assets. But the intensity and hostility of the opposition are suppressing thoughtful discussion about the benefits of transit-oriented development for the community, transportation and the environment.

Beyond the impact on housing affordability across the region, the net result of just saying no will be worse outcomes in terms of the environment, economy, fiscal health and traffic. It will push more and more growth back to the fringes of our region, leaving older neighborhoods to decline, isolating jobs far from lower-income residents and generating longer-distance commutes and yet more traffic and air pollution. That was where we were headed in the 1990s when the Coalition for Smarter Growth and its partner conservation groups began advocating a better way to grow. [Emphasis added-nw]

In the following days, someone sent me a letter from the editor in The Crozet Gazette that fanned the flames of the us vs. them mentality:

County planners recommended in favor of the Adelaide, Restore’N Station and West Glen developments, all of which were formally opposed in resolutions by the Crozet Community Advisory Committee, which cited the plan’s specific language in taking their positions. Lack of specificity and vague maps were cited by Planning Commissioners for dismissing the people’s considered opposition and approving Adelaide and West Glen anyway.

County planners are working for the developers, their clients, and not as the protectors of the public’s documented and ratified will.

While appreciative of the engaged community, The Free Enterprise Forum takes exception to the idea that County planners are working for developers.  I can assure you from my conversations with both sides of the development issue – neither believes the staff is “working” for them.

In our nearly thirteen years of existence we have never taken a position on a project but we are concerned that in the interest of “community engagement” localities have taken away the power of the elected supervisors and placed it in the hands of those with vested interests that may or may not agree with the larger view of the community vetted Comprehensive Plan.

Considering all of the above, the time has come to disband Albemarle County’s mission creeping Citizen Advisory Councils. These have become something they were never intended.

Today, rather than being a tool to assist in the implementation of the community vetted Master Plan, they stand as a non representative body with questionable legal status that provides political cover and seeks to derail any and all development proposals.

The most egregious example is the Crozet Citizens Advisory Council (CCAC).  The Free Enterprise Forum has examined the minutes from several of the CCAC meetings posted on Albemarle County’s website.

While we were happy to see many minutes posted we were disappointed that at least one set of “minutes” was merely a copy of the agenda for the meeting (3/18/2015).  We have no way to know if this was an error of omission, a programming error or that no minutes were recorded.  In any case, the larger public does not know what happened at the meeting.

In 2014, the minutes clearly indicate the power the CCAC believes it has with developers:

The Council could let him know our non-negotiable items, for instance that people want the downtown center

Thinking of Schwartz’s piece, it is also clear that the CCAC choose to interpret the Master Plan rather than implement.  According to the CCAC minutes (February 2017) regarding a project that met the targeted population density in the Master Plan and is in the designated development area:

Leslie said that she thought the development is not at the right place. There would be too much traffic and at some point the CCAC needs to recommend that traffic and other infrastructure issues be dealt with before there is more growth.  Phil said that he opposes the project on the basis of density, and John Savage said that it is inconsistent with other uses along Route 250 there.

Wait a minute – I thought this was the group charged with implementing the Master Plan for increase density not opposing it?

From the March 16, 2016 minutes:

Mike Marshall [Editor of Crozet Gazette – nw] noted that the issue is always over the density of development, and that if we get above a certain density the culture of the place is lost. If we allow wrong density, then we lose what is great about Crozet.

nimby1Rather than implementing  the Crozet Master Plan they are proposing resolutions to prevent development in the development areas.  Resolution after resolution either opposed development or calls for lower density that allowed in the community vetted master plan.

The term NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) seems appropriate for a group who in the last few weeks:

  • When presented with a project that met the targeted density but included townhomes opposed it (Adelaide).
  • When presented the opportunity to comment on a special use permit for a stream crossing, that was supported by staff, opposed it as such opposition would prevent 81 new units from being constructed.

The CCAC has evolved via mission creep FAR beyond its original charge.  They are acting as a screening device used to extort project changes – their original charge however  is clear:

The Crozet Community Advisory Committee (CCAC) is an advisory committee that provides assistance to County staff and the Board of Supervisors on civic/community issues related to implementation of the Crozet Master Plan in accordance with established county procedures.  Members will communicate with their constituencies to increase understanding of and support for successful implementation of the Master Plan.  The membership is broad-based to incorporate a variety of perspectives and ideas and to provide citizens, businesspersons and representatives of active community groups a chance to be engaged and be heard in a constructive and meaningful way.  [Emphasis Added – nw]

While many applicants may have issues with whether they have been heard in “A constructive and meaningful way”.  Some in the community see the Citizen Advisory Council as a mini Planning Commission absent legal advice (or control).  In January, White Hall Supervisor Ann Mallek told the CCAC:

Ann Mallek said that there has been no resubmission and so there is nothing to act on; this is an informational meeting. The first set of staff comments is being worked on to address the Comprehensive Plan, and then the record of this meeting will go to the Planning Commission. The developer can go to the Planning Commission for a work session, but at some point, there will be a public hearing and notices will go out to adjacent landowners. The Planning Commission will lean heavily on CCAC comments and the Planning Commission representative.

Such empowerment absent responsibility tends to bend the intent of these “advisory” Councils.

It is time for the Albemarle Supervisors to  stand up for the Comprehensive Plan you endorsed, and stand down these unelected Community Councils that are preventing the community vetted vision from being realized.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

Neil Williamson December 2 2015 Albemarle BOS meeting Photo Credit Charlottesville TomorrowNeil 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.

3 comments

  1. Based on this article, CCAC clearly exists to oppose their original charter. This committee operates without oversight from albemarle and is skirting a grey area when it comes to the law.

    Are they requesting proffers from developers? Are they creating minutes without an independent review? Are they having private discussions about developers and developments? Do members have personal economic benefits or risks with development?

    All these things are potentially illegal and unethical.

    If their charter is to “support the implementation of the Master Plan” why does the CCAC oppose every single development? Furthermore, have all members even read the master plan?

    Filling an entire committee with anti-growth NIMBYs represents the worst implementation of what was supposed to be a helpful group to assist the professional planners.

    Not only has CCAC failed their charter, they also are putting the county at risk of breaking the law. The bias and lack of ethics is concerning and deserves a formal review by the county attorney.

    It’s too bad, because the CCAC could be used to help design a better and welcoming community, but they are creating a battleground with development which will benefit no one in the long term.

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