Durable Growth, Government

Block parties: Emptying the notebook

Illicit Petaluma block party

Illicit Petaluma block party

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been arguing for greater freedom to host block parties in Petaluma.  Having learned that block parties are restricted to cul-de-sacs, I advocated for fewer restrictions, and then toured Petaluma block parties (h), both legal and illegal, on the Fourth of July.

To repeat myself, block parties aren’t urbanism, but are one-day samplings of urbanism.  And sampling urbanism is a step in the right direction.

I have a scattering of final insights and data to share today in preparation for moving onto other topics.  But the block party issue won’t be forgotten.  I’ll continue to raise the issue in conversations with city officials and will advise readers whenever there’s a hint of progress.

Police responses: I know of four people who approached the Petaluma Police Department about block parties for the summer of 2014.  The range of responses was wide and instructive.

Party request #1: The police contact denied the request because the Municipal Code prohibits block parties except on cul-de-sacs.  The potential party organizer dropped the idea.

Party request #2: An officer told the potential organizer that, while the Municipal Code prohibits block parties on through streets, the officer thought that the provision could be ignored if the organizer provided an emergency access plan and proof of neighborhood concurrence.  But when the organizer provided both documents, the officer never called back.  The party proceeded without approval.

Party request #3: An officer told the organizer that, while the Municipal Code prohibited her proposed party, he suggested she proceed without a permit, although he cautioned her to leave an emergency access lane.

Party request #4: The organizer left multiple messages at the police station, none of which were returned, so she proceeded without approval.

The tally is four identical requests with four disparate responses.  And the list doesn’t include the numerous block parties that have been conducted, some of them for many years, without contacting the police department at all.

(Addendum: After this post was readied for publishing, I heard from yet another block party organizer.  Her party will be on a through street, but the Police Department issued her a permit regardless.  For those scoring at home, that’s five identical requests with five disparate responses.)

I don’t provide this tabulation to make fun of the police.  Instead, I consider that range of responses as an indication that the officers were trying to reconcile a flawed Municipal Code provision with their own common sense.  The lack of consistency is further proof that the Code should be modified.

Illicit Petaluma block party

Illicit Petaluma block party

Review of other cities: I checked the municipal codes for other North Bay cities regarding block parties.  My check wasn’t in depth.  It consisted solely of checking the on-line Municipal Codes for the phrases “block party” and “street party”.  If someone has further information, please share.  But I think my findings are significant.

The municipal codes of Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, San Rafael, Sonoma, and Napa are apparently silent on block parties.  It’s possible that local precedent has established block party rules, but the standards don’t rise to the level of the Municipal Codes.

It was only in Novato where I found a small hint of a block party standard.  The special event application form includes a block party as one of the possible events, which implies apparent approval of block parties without restriction to cul-de-sacs.

The consensus of North Bay cities seems clear.

The Santa Rosa example is particularly striking because of a story I was recently told.  A former neighbor moved to Santa Rosa within the past year.  With his wife and toddler, he moved into a neighborhood with a long block party tradition.  He tells me that this year’s party attracted hundreds of people, perhaps including the Santa Rosa mayor.  My friend was unable to confirm the mayor’s attendance because he was too busy emceeing for the bands that were playing.

And the entire event was conducted on streets where block parties aren’t legal in Petaluma.

Defending City Hall: I should address a misconception that has been mentioned to me.  The block party issue has apparently led some to believe that the City of Petaluma is actively opposed to block parties.  I don’t believe that to be the case.  I think some City folks are looking at the block party issue through spectacles with flawed prescriptions, but that’s different from actual opposition.

To begin, the offending phrase in the Municipal Code, the one that limits block parties to cul-de-sacs, was probably written decades ago.  The author was likely someone who has long left City employment or a consultant who was never employed by the City.  We can’t blame the current denizens of City Hall for the restriction.

Also, when City Hall looks at changing the provision, they’re doing a benefit-cost assessment, which is reasonable.  However, they project few benefits from allowing more block parties.  Not a complete absence of benefits, but few benefits.  At the same time, they fear significant costs from the use of City staff to make the Municipal Code change and from the commitment of the police to enforce a new standard.  As a result, they calculate a benefit-cost ratio of less than one.

I believe they underestimate the benefits and overestimate the costs, so disagree with their calculation.  But I’ll defend them from the accusation that they see no benefits.

Good enough?:  Another response I hear is that the current situation is good enough and that we needn’t spend time worrying when most block parties are proceeding just fine.

If I squint, I can see that logic.  But when I fully open my eyes, the reasoning disappears like a puff of smoke.

How can the current situation are acceptable if newcomers to Petaluma, eager to bond with their neighbors, are directed by the police department not to hold block parties?  How is it acceptable if other organizers proceed with their plans, but are constantly looking over their shoulders in trepidation, wondering if they’re about to be fined for not getting a permit?

By any measure that I find reasonable, the current status isn’t “good enough”.

I’ll admit that block parties are a fairly small issue.  If someone gave me a magic lamp with the power to fix ten things in Petaluma, I doubt block parties would make my list.  But if we can’t fix the little solvable problems, how do we think we can fix the big, more intractable problems?

Okay, I’ve spent enough time on block parties.  Probably more than I should have.  Thanks for hanging around while I ranted.

It’s now time to move along.  In my next post, I’ll take a look at neighborhood meeting places.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

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 http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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