Plan Commission Learns from Dysfunctional Council

While I couldn’t attend last night’s “special” Council meeting on the behavior of the Plan Commission, I have read two very different angles on the meeting from online blogs (I hesitate to call them news). Personally, I am of the opinion that it is the old adage of the pot calling the kettle black. I would urge the Council to carefully look in the mirror before forcing a further setback on a City whose leadership is leaving in droves.

For several years now, I have been following Plan Commission actions and trying to look at the big picture. I have watched a very different Plan Commission strongly oppose a questionable development at 1881 Oak. The Commission followed the intent of the Zoning laws and while it tried, could not find a positive aspect to the project. Enter the Council and within minutes they have already voted to reject the Plan Commission advisory ruling and set to write an ordinance. The result, a beautiful and appropriate development that we can be proud of? Hardly. We have a developer who promised the world and now has come back twice to the Council for an extension because they can’t market what they want to develop.

Next, the same developer wanted to put another building across the street. Once again, requesting large zoning variances. This time, the Plan Commission is easier on the developer. Some quotes in the press were on the order of: “the Council will just vote it through anyway, so we might as well recommend it.”

However, some Council members are having second thoughts about the appropriateness of the development. Seeing that they don’t have the votes to pass, the Council “tables” the matter – sound familiar? Next, in a “surprise” move – apparently not communicated to ALL the Council members, Alderman Wollin takes the motion off the table and reveals that she and some of the others on the Council have been working “behind the scenes” and that she has a “promise” from the developer that they will work “really hard” to put a grocery store on the first floor of the project. Sounds pretty dysfunctional to me. Fast forward to today, where is the movement on the proposed development? Where is the news on Trader Joe’s which was so expertly touted as the mystical public benefit to justify the exceptions? Et tu Council?

Next, the Council does probably the most self-defeating move I have witnessed. After private meetings with a developer, and against the recommendations of legal counsel, the Council votes to exempt a project from a moratorium. The “Council” said that having a 49-story skyscraper going through the approval process would not have any effect on a $250,000 taxpayer funded plan for the downtown. Anyone with common sense could see the conflict this would cause.

The Council basically told the Plan Commission to ignore the elephant in the room, and rule on the 49-story tower while ignoring what was simultaneously going on with the Downtown Plan. The Commission, for the most part, followed marching orders and made a ruling, with major conditions. The Commission was split with one Commissioner retiring from the Commission just weeks before the vote. However, the testimony at the PC was overwhelmingly in opposition to the project.

Next, the Plan Commission moves on and begins deliberations on the Downtown Plan. Once again, the overwhelming sentiment of public testimony is opposed to spot-zoning a single parcel of the Downtown for the financial gain of a single property owner and developer (and you though Haliburton was bad). Discussion, was for the most part civil and items that were contentious were put in the “parking lot” to keep discussion moving. When the question of the “core block” was finally imminent, the Plan Commission wisely decided to wait until the Council made a ruling on the 708 development.

Surprise! The Council had the votes to deny the inappropriate development – but in a shrewd and questionable move, decided to “table” the vote until we had a Downtown Plan. Nothing like passing the hot potato.

As a citizen, observer and taxpayer; I find the Council’s actions to be much more distasteful and dysfunctional than the Plan Commission. After all, it was the Council who created the majority of the dissension. The Plan Commission tried to be objective, in their proceedings; but there was a major disconnect. There was a massive conflict between what the Consultants presented for this one parcel of land, and what the overwhelming number of taxpayers wanted for their downtown.

The Plan Commissioners are volunteers and put in countless hours. With all the antics of the Council and Staff related to 708 Church and the relationship with the Downtown Plan, how could there help but be some dysfunction. However, the suggestion of some Aldermen that Plan Commission should be somehow scrapped is scary at best. The Plan Commission in some ways acts as conduit between taxpayers and the Council that supposedly represent them. Taking away or discouraging, highly trained professionals seems like a radical and ill-advised tactic. When is that election?