Review of the 9/17/2018 Town Council meeting

Updated 9/19/2018 to remind people that the Town is planning to put in a parking garage at the Patrick Henry Library, in addition to the one they have committed money for on Mill Street.  That’s now the final item on this page.

The Vienna Town Council and Planning Commission held a joint public hearing on 9/17/2018, mostly to deal with Maple Avenue Commercial (MAC) zoning.  The meeting room was full but there was no overflow crowd.  I would guess that close to 25 individuals spoke up, and as usual, all of them were against the current MAC zoning.

Let me first summarize the facts, then give you my interpretation.

The facts are easy:  Town Council will temporarily suspend new applications under MAC zoning starting on or about 9/30/2018.   Legal requirements prevented them from suspending MAC immediately.  This was, apparently, the earliest date at which they could do it.

So that’s the good news.  And that’s the end of the facts.

How long is the suspension?  That wasn’t specified.  The motion says June 17, 2019, but discussion made it more-or-less clear that if they finish early, they’ll reinstate MAC early, and if they aren’t done by June 17, 2019, they’ll extend the suspension.  So … your guess as as good as mine.  Or theirs.

What are they going to do during the suspension?  That wasn’t specified.  Town staff will undertake a “visual preference survey” of residents, and draft up some guidelines based on that.  But — see discussion below — while some Town Council members called for a lot more than that, the Mayor, predictably, left everything else ambiguous.

What parts of the law are up for revision?  That wasn’t specified.  This process will apparently be controlled by the Director of Planning and Zoning, Cindy Petkac.  The only thing she mentioned was a “visual preference survey” and a set of design guidelines.  The rest of the many items that Town Council members called for — a comprehensive look at traffic, infrastructure, and so on … well, we’ll see if that happens or not.

Will they accept a proposal for 380 Maple West despite this?  Yes, sure looks like it.

Will they suspend the 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande proposal while they make these changes?  Nope, sure doesn’t look like it.  Legally, it’s possible that they could.  But the Town’s lawyer pretty clearly cautioned them against that.  The upshot is that if they want 444 Maple West to be processed under the revised MAC, they need to vote it down.

Did citizens get to comment on the changes already proposed?  No.  Or at least, not formally.  The public session (where we can comment) that was held was to comment on the temporary suspension of the MAC ordinance.  Town Council deferred a second public session to such time as they have all the proposed changes to MAC in one place.   (And my guess for that is, it will be after the May 2019 Town Council elections.)

Yet more history of MAC came out in this meeting.  Previously we learned that nobody who was putting MAC together expected it to be about housing.  For reasons that I cannot quite fathom, they expected the commercial property to be the driver behind MAC buildings.   And in this meeting, we learned yet another little nugget.  According to Councilman Noble, MAC was supposed to have been issued with a set of “visual design guidelines” and a comprehensive plan for Maple Avenue traffic.  But neither of those was actually done.  That failure was ascribed to turnover of staff in the Planning department.  So, at least by that account, MAC, as issued, is incomplete.  It’s part of the the full regulatory package that was originally planned.

Let me finish this introductory section by listing all the things that various Town Council members are now calling for, under this revision of MAC.   Here’s what I heard called for:

Visual design guidelines and code changes.

A comprehensive plan for traffic and transportation issues on Maple Avenue.

A study of current and predicted future market and economic conditions (in recognition of the fact that the town expected commercial buildings, but they are getting more-or-less housing, housing, and more housing).

A comprehensive plan for dealing with utilities up and down Maple Avenue.

An analysis of likely MAC impacts on Town infrastructure.

An analysis of the likely impact on local schools.

Methods to include affordable housing under MAC.

I note that newspaper reporting of the Town Council meeting mentions exactly none of these additional items.   Given how well-connected the reporter (Brian Trompeter) is, that suggests to me that the Town is not serious about the rest of these items.  I discuss that in the “most ominous” section below.

Read on for my impressions of the meeting.  I’m going to list what I consider the Most Important, Funniest, Weirdest, Most Ominous, and Most Rage-Provoking parts of the meeting.

MOST IMPORTANT POINT of the meeting was the number of Town Council members who insisted that the “statement of purpose and intent” was the most important part of MAC law.   And that MAC was a good law because the Town Council could reject buildings that did not fully meet that statement of purpose and intent.

Let me quote the second sentence of that section of the law:

“The zone is intended to ensure that development along the corridor promotes Vienna’s small-town character and does not compromise the character of residential neighborhoods abutting the corridor.”

Now, myself, I think the councilmembers reliance on the MAC statement of purpose and intent was a bunch of play-acting.  Their faith in the value of MAC zoning appears to rely on the notion that the Town Council can and will (e.g.) reject a building because that building does not sufficiently meet their idea of “small town”.

I think that’s wishful thinking.  But because they said it, we now need to hold them to it, with respect to 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande.

By no stretch of anybody’s imagination does a building bigger than a football field standing 61′ tall further the “small town character” of Vienna.   I have objective survey data that proves that point — almost nobody perceives 444 Maple West as a “small town” building.  Let me just repeat the key graph here, from a survey of 100 randomly-chosen US adults.

We just had a Town Council meeting where, with no dissent, multiple members of the Town Council asserted that they, in effect, had a right and a duty to flunk projects that are not aligned with the MAC statement of purpose and intent.  And so, we will now be on the lookout for anyone who says that because 444 Maple West meets the technical requirements of MAC (with respect to setbacks and such), then, gosh, they have no choice but to allow it.

In particular, councilmember Majdi specifically noted that there needs to be a change within the Planning and Zoning department.  I am sure the he has observed what I have observed — Planning and Zoning assesses whether the proposal meets the technical provisions of the law.  Period.  They don’t assess (e.g.) the extent to which a building does or does not fit in a small town.

So, based on their own words, this Town Council had better reject the 444 Maple West proposal.  Because if they let the builder tweak that proposal, then piously declare that it satisfies the purpose and intent of MAC zoning, we will know them for a bunch of hypocrites and liars.

Enough said.

PURELY FUNNIEST MOMENT surely must go to Councilmember Majdi.  After town staff had talked about the effort required to get appropriate pictures of buildings for the “visual preference survey”, Majdi’s response was, no, it’s easy, just take the pictures you’ve already been using.   They’re nice little buildings, and if the MAC projects looked like that, we’d all like them.  And he proceeded to cite the exact location of pictures in the town’s Comprehensive Plan and an issue of the Vienna Voice.

As my homage to Councilmember Majdi, here are the two pictures he cited, below.

Take just a minute to contrast the size of the people (compared to the buildings) in the Town’s illustrations of MAC (below), versus the actual MAC proposals that you can see here  (or below).  By directly measuring the drawings, the building in the Town’s illustration (from ground to balcony railing) is about 5.5 times the height of the people.  By contrast, 444 Maple West shows the buildings at roughly 11 times the height of the people in front of them.  So the building that the Town used to illustrate MAC is about half the height of the 444 Maple West/Tequila Grande proposal.

This is page 28 of the Town of Vienna Comprehensive Plan:

This is the front page of the Vienna Voice, October 2016.

Contrast the size of the people above to the squint-inducing size in the 444 Maple West illustration.  In case you can’t actually see the people, the little red blob, in the middle of the window at the lower left — that’s a person.

So, Town Council, there’s your quick solution to this problem, in one simple illustration.  Make the buildings half as tall, half as wide, and half as deep as the actual MAC proposals, and I bet that people would probably find them to be a lot more acceptable.  Make MAC zoning match the apparent height in that illustration, and much of the objection to the proposed MAC buildings would evaporate.  I believe Majdi literally suggested this earlier — rewrite the law to match the illustrations — and I just didn’t quite get it.  Now I do.

WEIRDEST MOMENT took place before the meeting even got started:  Town Council refused to approve the minutes of the last Town Council meeting. 

I believe that’s unprecedented.   And the reason they wanted the minutes re-written is telling, I think.

The minutes are the written public record of the meeting.  Several Town Council members wanted their specific comments on MAC zoning to be explicitly included in the minutes.   Town staff’s response — that interested individuals could just watch the video — was not deemed good enough.   And so, what is normally a rote exercise in approving the minutes turned into something different this time.  Approval of the minutes of the last meeting was deferred until town staff could add in the details of the council members’ comments.

I am guessing that some Town Council members are looking toward elections in May 2019.  Those who have been and continue to be against this extremely unpopular MAC zoning (Springsteen and Majdi) clearly want that to be well-documented.

Separately, I am looking forward to the writeup of the Mayor’s strangely detailed directions for revising the 444 Maple West proposal, from the last Council meeting.  And the write up of her dust-up with the developer on burying a power transmission line that passes by Tequila Grande.  (You can see my write up of that here.)  I want to see all of that in black-and-white, in the official Town of Vienna minutes.

MOST OMINOUS OUTCOME is that only thing we are sure that the Town will do is to produce a set of visual guidelines for MAC buildings.  Everything else (listed below) is wishful thinking at this point.  And the process is under the control of a Mayor and Planning and Zoning director who are clearly hostile to making significant changes to MAC.  Based on our clearly unrepentant Mayor (read below), my guess is that all they are going to do is the “visual guidelines” unless we keep their feet to the fire.

Recall that, at the last meeting (8/20/2018), the Mayor absolutely refused to respond to calls to look at the substance of MAC, instead of just some visual guidelines.  At the 8/20/2018 meeting, council member Majdi asked the Mayor four separate times about revising the substance of MAC, and the Mayor simply ignored him.  Four separate times.  Read my writeup of that here.

The Mayor has not (yet) repented of that.  At the end of this part of the session, when the Mayor offered her comments, they were to support suspension of MAC zoning while the town put together some visual guidelines.  Pretty much full stop.  Essentially unchanged from last meeting.  She also made some ambiguous mention of  changes in MAC code regarding “transportation”.  It was not clear what she meant by that.

That’s it.  That’s all the Mayor appears to have agreed to.  So … building height, building size, housing unit density … nope.  No mention of any of that.  So we still have a Mayor (and a couple of council members) who are resistant to making substantive changes to MAC zoning.  And a Director of Planning, ditto.

Nor was there any effort by Town Council to get some agreed-upon list of items to be considered for change.  That was all left ambiguous, all left up in the air, and all left (apparently) to the discretion of the Director of Planning.

None of that bodes well, in my opinion.  The Director of Planning comes across as a cheerleader for MAC.  This is the town staff member whose discussion of “walkability” under MAC I found so fundamentally misleading.  This is the same person who oversaw the use of pictures of cute little buildings to illustrate MAC, and who continues to include those pictures in her current presentations on MAC.  She is now in charge of revising the MAC regulations.

So let me be sure to list all the things that various Town Council members brought up.  So that, when the dust settles, we can judge how much or (more likely) how little the Town actually did to change MAC zoning.  (This is the same list as I presented above).

Here’s what I heard called for:

Visual design guidelines and code changes.

A comprehensive plan for traffic and transportation issues on Maple Avenue.

A study of current and predicted future market and economic conditions (in recognition of the fact that the town expected commercial buildings, but they are getting more-or-less housing, housing, and more housing).

A comprehensive plan for dealing with utilities up and down Maple Avenue.

An analysis of likely MAC impacts on Town infrastructure.

Likely impact on local schools.

Methods to include affordable housing under MAC.

MOST RAGE-INDUCING MOMENT.  The full writeup is going to have to wait until I can produce a curse-word-free version of it. 

In a nutshell.  For four years, and one rejected project, and a lot of citizen unrest, the town did REDACTED to change MAC.  Do I have that wrong?  Did the Town actually make any EXPLETIVE DELETED substantive changes to MAC in the wake of the original Marco Polo crash-and-burn?

Oh yeah, now I remember.  The only FLAPDOODLE change they made was to make it harder for citizens to protest a MAC project.

But now, the story is that MAC is a “living document”, the fact that there is citizen protest shows that MAC is working, it’s a pity that the Town Council has to work now in a “climate of fear” to modify MAC, and … well, you can probably fill in the rest of the POPPYCOCK that was being slung at this meeting.

I was particularly livid about the use of the phrase “living document”, because to an American, that’s sacrilege.  In the America that I grew up in, the Constitution of the United States, and only the Constitution, is described as a living document.  It is the living document.  And to hear that phrase being co-oped for this FOETID piece of zoning regulation — I just about lost it right there.

Anybody on Town Council know what September 17th is?  It’s Constitution Day.  It’s the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

Anyway, the fact is, until a whole bunch of people got fairly angry about what the Town Council was doing, the Town Council wasn’t going to do one DAGNAB thing to make significant changes to MAC.  It’s not even clear that they are going to do so now.  This, despite the fact that many aspects of MAC (such as the open space requirement) were and are clearly broken, that the buildings were ludicrously out-of-place in “small town” Vienna, and despite that fact that MAC was intended as commercial zoning but had morphed into housing, housing, and more housing.

So let me be crystal clear.  I want to see fundamental changes or outright repeal of MAC.  But we have five councilmembers who remain firmly committed to it.  Only Springsteen and Majdi are willing to question the basic structure of the MAC regulation.  I suspect that none of the other five are capable of saying “oops, this was a mistake”.  It’s just human nature, to some degree.  Many people are incapable of admitting error.

If we can’t change the minds of the people sitting in those seats, the only option is to change the people sitting in those seats.

So what they call “fear”, I call democracy in action.  I certainly hope they are afraid of losing their Town Council seats.  Because if they don’t change their minds about MAC, in the face of 1100 signatures on an anti-MAC-building petition, then they deserve to be voted out of office.  You can read my earlier screed on this point here.

Finally, I don’t want people to overlook the last item on the agenda:  $150,000 for a feasibility study for a parking structure on the current Patrick Henry Library parking lot.  I didn’t stick around for that, but I now know that got passed.  I’m going to do a separate page on that in the near future.