Charlottesville’s Engagement Problem

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By. Neil Williamson, President

Man-proposing-ring-woman-e1434128981263One person can’t get engaged – it takes two.

Engagement, like all communication, requires all parties to fully participate; listening and responding.  This was not the case in last night’s (6/27) Charlottesville planning commission meeting – where the banner of public engagement is waved proudly; but despite the efforts of two special interest groups, their zoning code concerns were not addressed in the discussion.

Please let me explain.

In last night’s Planning Commission code audit work session, Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson related to the Commission that she had several conversations with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) and received a copy of the letter written by the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable (CADRe).

Rather than taking the bull by the horns and including these organizations’ concerns in the presentation, Robertson said that CADRe’s letter was written to the Planning Commission and City Council and was not staff’s position to reply.  Robertson said she thought the comments of both groups might inform discussion of the panel but not once in the two hour work session did she raise a specific concern from either of the organizations.  Considering the level of technical detail in the CADRe letter, one would have anticipated planning staff providing some context to the legal discussion – there was none.

The Free Enterprise Forum has reviewed CADRe’s 16 page letter, sent to the Planning Commission in advance of their first work session (5/29).  The respectful tone and constructive criticism was well drafted and encouraged public discussion of the various points.  Those questions went unanswered.

In his reporting for Charlottesville Tomorrow, Sean Tubbs included the CADRe concerns as a part of his coverage of the meeting in this morning’s Daily Progress. If it was important enough to be in the article, shouldn’t it be part of the Planning Commission discussion?

The goal of the Planning Commission work sessions was to vet the proposed zoning changes and the impacts they might have on property owners.  CADRe which works with several prominent property owners raised many significant concerns regarding building heights.  Staff failed to mention (let alone address) these concerns in their presentation; therefore the discussion was significantly less robust than it could have been.

Late in the meeting Planning Commission Chair Kurt Keeseker suggested the commission should be made aware understand the types of comments that are coming in and the citizens should receive a response.  He related the manner in which the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is answering inquiries and the reporting back to the Hydraulic Advisory Panel.  This less than perfect engagement concept was brought forward in good faith, but it was dismissed.

This process is being done under the auspices of a ‘legal review’ and thus the Deputy City Attorney is the lead staff.  As mentioned above, one would anticipate that the planning staff who work with the zoning code day in and day out would have a great deal to offer regarding the code revisions.  Silently sitting a row behind the Deputy City Attorney, Alex Ikefuna Charlottesville’s Director of Planning spoke not one word during the 2 hour+ meeting.  His silence spoke volumes.

When the four Planning Commissioners present pushed back on staff asking for more engagement with  SELC,  CADRe, and other interested citizens, staff indicated that could not be accomplished under the stated work plan that City Council adopted.

In summary, at least two special interest groups provided substantial information to the staff and staff choose not to include the concerns in the presentation because the letter was addressed to the Planning Commission and the City Council. When the Commission pushed for more community engagement, they folded under staff’s threat of jeopardizing City Council’s calendar.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the zoning code rewrite process is being railroaded.

We believe in true engagement.  Failing to directly address the concerns of the SELC and CADRe at the Planning Commission work session level will lead to increase delay in zoning code implementation and a lack of respect for the entire “engagement” process.  These issues will not “go away” they will return at the public hearings.

Simply putting documents on a website “for all to see” is not engagement – engagement is involved, engagement can be messy, engagement requires significant work and engagement takes time.  It seems the City is placing their calendar over their citizens.

Charlottesville deserves better.

Respectfully Submitted,

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.

Photo Credit: Hiphealthy.com

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