Durable Growth

Neighbors can have great ideas, but shouldn’t have too much authority

120327B005 Suisun City Residential StreetscapeMy first land-use hearing speaking role was for a project that was also the largest of my career.  Almost 500 acres, 700 homes, a golf course, and a spectacular setting.   Although I can’t find the post right now, I’ve previously written about the walkable urbanist elements of the project, which were moderately acceptable at conception but leaked away during implementation.

At the hearing, the urbanist elements were still in the plan, but those elements, as laudable as they were, weren’t what captured my attention that evening.  It was the rancor of the neighborhood opposition.

Knowing the high level of interest in the hearing, the city had moved the hearing from the council chambers to the public works building.  Thus, the five-person development team, of which I was the junior member, found ourselves surrounded by two hundred noisy neighbors in an equipment bay that normally housed maintenance vehicles.

Even as the team made their presentation, the leader of the neighbors paced at the back of the room, gesturing with his clipboard like a rabid football coach, outside of sight from the hearing officer conducting the process but audible to many of the neighbors, making derisive comments about each presenter, and trying to build a frenzy.

When that time came for public comment, the outpouring was immediate.  The neighbors had grown accustomed to bike riding through the site to reach the national forest beyond.  The developer had engaged in shady practices elsewhere.  The neighbors enjoyed taking evening nature walks through the site.  The developer wasn’t local.  Despite what the studies showed and without an alternative factual argument, everyone knew the traffic would be horrendous.  The developer regularly broke promises.

The hearing officer listened politely, nodded occasionally, and, when he issued his decision a few weeks later, rejected virtually every argument made by the neighbors.

Frequently overwrought and unsubstantiated neighborhood reactions are an element of the land-use process that that concerns me for at least three reasons.  They seem to be gaining a stronger foothold in the land-use process to the detriment of our communities.  They can have unfortunate overtones of unsocial perspectives.  And they can result in reasonable and mutually-beneficial project adjustments being lost.  I’ll dig deeper into each.

Neighborhood objections are gaining a greater role in the land-use process.  CEQA, with its relatively low threshold for recourse to the court system, gives neighbors a potentially strong voice, if sometimes an undereducated role, in the process.  And developers, for whom time is literally money and wary of the CEQA-power potentially wielded by neighbors, will trim projects to avoid the CEQA recourse.  A frequent victim of the trimming is the lower-end residential units that would have reduced the displacement that can result from gentrification.

In addition to the CEQA concerns, there are more rumblings of giving veto power to neighbors for some types of land-use actions, enhancing the power of neighbors to halt projects despite a sometimes credible greater good.

On the social implications of neighborhood concerns, I’ll look back to the story of Yonkers, New York as recounted in the book and HBO show “Show Me a Hero”.  Under the Yonkers approach to land-use decisions, deference was given to the city councilmember in whose district a project would be located.  As most voters were opposed to public housing in their neighborhoods and most councilmembers were interested in reelection, all public housing was eventually located in the quadrant of the town that already had public housing and therefore wasn’t averse to more public housing.

It was a pattern that a federal court system eventually determined to be systemically racist, with the court forcing the city to take remedial action and leading to the story told in “Show Me a Hero”.  I understand that many neighbors who would look with a jaundiced eye at the idea of public housing in their neighborhoods aren’t covert racists, but if the result is a land-use pattern judged to be systemically racist, it’s a distinction without a difference.

On the last point, a frequent frustration during my career was having neighbors, in the heat of public testimony, offer ideas that truly would have benefited both the developer and the neighbors, but that were quickly buried in a flood of opprobrium.

It was always fun to chat over beers with a developer after a long public meeting, reminding him of the speaker who impugned his character and his business practices and then to suggest that the speaker’s idea about realigning the road could benefit both the project and the neighborhood.

I was successful with a fair number of those conversations, but it was unfortunate that I had to first overcome the negative impression left by the speaker.

Looking at the biggest possible picture, I often think of a land-use decision as balancing the needs of three public constituencies, the neighborhood which will have to deal with the traffic, parking, visual, and noise impacts from the project, the community which has an interest in creating a more resilient and sustainable community, in minimizing infrastructure maintenance, and in having employees living as close to employment, schools, and shopping as possible, and the broader public which has a concern that resources, particularly those with climate change implications, are used efficiently.

Balancing those three constituencies isn’t easy or trivial.  Given the same set of facts, ten fair-minded individuals would likely come to ten different reasonable conclusions.

But balancing them is essential.  And when we give any of the parties unreasonable control, either through CEQA authority or through veto powers in zoning codes, we undermine that balance.

Do I have solutions to propose?  Not really.  I can’t think of any way to change the land-use process to remove the bumps I describe above.  But I can implore governing bodies to not give too much authority to neighbors, neighbors to be aware of the bigger picture, and applicants to look past the sometimes inflammatory rhetoric for the good ideas that may be tucked behind.  Building better communities requires us to work together.

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.

1 comment to Neighbors can have great ideas, but shouldn’t have too much authority