By. Neil Williamson, President
The late Fred Rogers, of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, opened his long running television program with a welcoming, inclusive message asking “Won’t You Be My Neighbor“. In public hearings across our region, and across the nation, we hear a decidedly different message as existing residents oppose proposed housing and commercial projects.
Virginia code dictates that a public hearing must be held in conjunction with many zoning changes. A recent Boston University study has the Free Enterprise Forum questioning the foundation of both of those words: Public and Hearing.
In a thought provoking article, WHYY contributor Jake Blumgart titled As debate rages over a supervised injection site, some ask, ‘Do public meetings empower privilege?’ The article follows neighborhood opposition to a proposed medical facility. The non-profit who sought to operate the facility, Safehouse, was not in favor of a public engagement process. Blumgart reports:
But supporters of Safehouse countered that they knew exactly how such a public meeting would go down. They argue that such events tend to be dominated by the loudest, most oppositional voices even if all that is being discussed is a new bike lane. A supervised injection site would result in a volcanic backlash, with little chance for real or meaningful debate.
This is not new.
A 1979 book The Environmental Protection Hustle written by MIT Professor Bernard Frieden called out the San Francisco land use politics, that once were a very reasonable backlash against sprawl, had swung wildly the other direction; with predictable results:
Contrary to a widespread belief . . . when housing proposals generate stiff opposition, developers do not usually persist with their original plans and simply raise prices enough to cover the costs of delays, legal proceedings, or other regulatory expenses. Instead, they compromise with their critics by cutting the number of moderate-cost houses in their plans and substituting a smaller number of houses that only high-income families can afford. [The compromise struck is always] at the expense of someone who was not there: the housing consumer.”
The design and concept of the typical community meeting is being revisited by many practitioners.
In our area, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) revamped their project public engagement process about eight years ago. [The Advance Mills Bridge Replacement was the first such hearing I attended] Rather than an opportunity for a spotlight on a single speaker, VDOT Public Meetings feature a variety of informational stations and the opportunity to write or record citizen opinions all of which becomes part of the project’s public record.
Commissioner Julian Bivins said he knew there were a lot of tradespeople in Crozet and the general area who have lived there for many years.
“When I looked at those photos, I didn’t see that population represented,” he said. “Now granted, that’s only a few photos. I’m very concerned that this process doesn’t get driven by newly-arrived Crozet.”
The Boston University study examined years of zoning and planning meetings in 97 cites and towns in eastern Massachusetts. As community meeting participants must register name and address in Massachusetts, that public data could be mined on the participant demographic profile.
The Boston University academics found that neighborhood meeting participants are deeply unrepresentative of their communities. They are more likely to be white than the average resident, and they are much older and far more likely to be homeowners.
“There are really big disparities, bigger even than disparities between voters and non-voters,” said Katherine Levine Einstein, assistant professor of political science at Boston University and one of the co-authors of Neighborhood Defenders. “These disparities persist whether you’re looking at affluent towns or really disadvantaged places.”
Community meeting attendees were also overwhelmingly opposed to development of any kind, with 62% of attendees speaking against the projects they were presented. Only 15% spoke in favor.
Einstein said the problem with this form of hyper-local public engagement is that it privileges concentrated costs over more diffuse benefits. A new protected bike lane would keep riders from all over the city safe, but the people who actually attend a meeting about its creation are typically the handful of neighbors who may soon have a harder time parking in front of their homes.
“We might think about neighborhood meetings as being this great way to empower underrepresented voices,” Einstein said. “But our research shows that it is really more of a forum for empowering, typically, the most privileged segments who are often disproportionately opposed to the thing that’s getting proposed.”Emphasis added -nw
So the question remains, who is the public that actually gets heard at Public Hearings?
- Should localities take a page out of VDOT’s public engagement handbook and take the spotlight out of the public hearing process?
- Should such a change be made at the state level?
- Should the engagement include increased community outreach, going where the people are (festivals farmer’s market, playgrounds, etc.) rather than waiting for them on a weekday evening at City Hall/County Administration building?
- Would such a process be adequately transparent?
- In the case of new housing projects, how could the decision makers hear from those who would be served by more housing?
- Was this processes originally designed to protect the status quo?
Once again, we have more questions than answers.
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded non partisan 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
Photo Credits: Los Angeles County