The status quo protects itself

Urban setting from Europe

Urban setting from Europe

A few weeks ago, I wrote about upcoming appointments to the Petaluma Planning Commission.  My topic was an incorrectly perceived divide within the City Council and the applicant pool.

The post caused readers to ask why I hadn’t applied to the Planning Commission.  It was a question that others had previously asked.

I had multiple good reasons, including a family situation and a belief that I could make more of a difference as a blogger, which is a proactive role, rather than as a Planning Commissioner, which is reactive.

But there was one overriding reason.  I knew there would be numerous issues coming before the Planning Commission from which I would have to recuse myself.  It would be fair to neither the community nor the other Planning Commissioners if I spent much of my term sitting in the hallway outside the City Council Chambers.

My recusals would have been based on a standard previously set forth for Planning Commissioners by City legal staff, which is that a public utterance on a project which later comes in front of the Planning Commission justifies recusal.  About a year ago, I wrote about a situation in which the standard was applied to Planning Commissioner Bill Wolpert.  And it had been previously applied to Planning Commissioners Melissa Abercrombie and Alicia Kae Herries.

It takes only a brief review of my past blog posts to realize how many public utterances I’ve made on pending local land-use issues.

I’m not criticizing the City legal staff for how they’ve applied the recusal standard.  I’m not an attorney and have reviewed neither the appropriate state law nor the interpretation made by City legal staff.  Furthermore, I’m willing to believe that the state rule-makers and City staff were truly trying to serve the public good and to keep the land-use process untainted.

Nonetheless, the result has some serious and presumably unintended consequences which could affect our future.

People usually think of the familiar as the default.  For those of us who came of television-watching age in the 1950s, three stations received by a rooftop antenna remains the normal situation, with hundreds of channels delivered by satellite being new-fangled.  And the center of the automotive world remains Detroit, with Tokyo and Seoul being upstarts who are still knocking on the door.

I’m not making fun of anyone when I note this.  Heck, I’m including myself in the class of old fogies.  I’m only noting how our minds work.

Similarly, those who grew up in the lap of drivable suburbia usually think of that land-use pattern as normal.  And they use it as the yardstick against which to judge proposed projects.   One often sees that standard applied to project elements such as traffic and parking.

For most communities like Petaluma, virtually all potential Planning Commissioners grew up in drivable suburbia.  I certainly did.  Therefore, the default standard of most potential planning commissioners in those communities is drivable suburbia.

A few communities may also have folks who, through different life experiences or personal study, have embraced the walkable urban alternative.  But that group is likely to be small.  And if those folks have expressed their urbanist preferences in regard to specific projects, then they must step away from the process.

So we start with a minority of urbanists and then further winnow the group down to those who have remained mostly silent about their inclination.

It’s a crazy situation.  Drivable suburbia is a 70-year-old experiment that is beginning to fail.  The increasingly poor condition of our infrastructure and our over-stretched municipal budgets show us that.  But we’ve written a rule that excludes from a key governance position many of the people who are best informed to move our communities into a new, financially-sustainable paradigm.

Imagine if a corporation similarly quashed new ideas.  It wouldn’t last a generation.  And yet we’ve somehow come to the conclusion that it’s a good idea for government.

I don’t believe there’s any malevolence behind the policy.  Instead, it’s a matter of good people implementing rules that seem reasonable in an ivory tower, only to have the rules become nonsense on the ground.

Nor am I trying to position myself to apply for a Planning Commission seat.  I hope someday to fill that role, but for now keep myself busy without the responsibility.

My only agenda is to see if we can build a consensus to change the rule so it’s not quite so hard for the voice of urbanism to be heard in city halls.

Common sense demands nothing less.

If some are wondering how the June Planning Commission appointments worked out, I thought the results were fairly good.  Some of my preferred applicants were bypassed, but the resulting Commission wasn’t as firmly drivable suburban as I might have feared.  Another vacancy has now occurred in the Planning Commission, so the City Council will appoint another new Commissioner in August.  But I’ll remain firmly on the sideline.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at

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