Two months into the MAC moratorium, an update 11/20/2018

Background on the MAC moratorium

At the 9/17/2018 Town Council meeting, the Town Council voted to suspend any further acceptance of MAC rezoning applications until (probably) after the next Town election in May 2019.  You can see my write up of that here.  In addition to the three projects that had already been submitted, two more were submitted prior to the moratorium deadline, and it appears essentially certain that the Town will approve both of those additional projects.

The purpose of the moratorium was to give the Town time to rewrite the MAC statute.  Presumably, the need to do some rewriting was both for things the Town wanted to fix in the law, but also in response to the tremendous negative reaction from residents regarding a large apartment building planned for the corner of Maple and  Nutley (444 Maple Avenue West a.k.a. Tequila Grande). Citizen reaction to that proposal included maybe 100 people speaking out against it in various meetings, a petition against it with more than 1000 signatures, and so on.  (None of that mattered — in the end, the Town approved the proposal for very large apartment building on that site.)

We’re now about one-fifth of way through the 270 day (or less) MAC moratorium.  The Town Council said the point of the moratorium was to give time to revise the MAC statute.  What has been accomplished so far? 

The short answer is, not much.   Details follow.


After all is said and done, more is said than done.

Aesop said that around 600 BC.  Yet it pretty much sums up the current situation.

When the MAC moratorium was announced on 9/17/2018, Town Council members listed several tasks required to rework the MAC statute.  I documented those at the time.  I also documented that a) the Mayor was silent on everything other than the “visual preference survey”, as was the very pro-developer Sun Gazette.   And I noted at that time that this probably meant that the Town was going to ignore everything but the visual preference survey.   (I made it clear that I think the visual preference survey is literally there purely to provide the appearance of action and let the Town to justify what it has already decided to do.)

For the record, here’s what I heard Town Council members call for at that meeting.  All together, this seems like a fairly reasonable work plan for revising MAC.  I would have added a few items — e.g., making the “open space” clause actually do something — but this was a good start.

  1. Visual design guidelines and code changes.
  2. A comprehensive plan for traffic and transportation issues on Maple Avenue.
  3. 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).
  4. A comprehensive plan for dealing with utilities up and down Maple Avenue.
  5. An analysis of likely MAC impacts on Town infrastructure.
  6. An analysis of the likely impact on local schools.
  7. Methods to include affordable housing under MAC.

I have already dealt with some of these issues.  On this page, I explain why the Town will never do a study of MAC and traffic.  Here, I explain that the MAC statute was written in such a way as to prevent having an actual, legal affordable housing program.  In the last capital budget, the Town finally decided to pay for a feasibility study for putting the utility lines underground (after requiring all MAC developers to do that already), and has started putting aside money for that purpose.

So let me now annotate the bullet list above to see what has been done.

  1. Visual design guidelines and code changesPerformed a visual preference survey (see below), no idea how to translate to guidelines, no mention of changes in code.
  2. A comprehensive plan for traffic and transportation issues on Maple Avenue.  Nothing so far, my assertion is this is never going to happen.
  3. 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).  Nothing in the works so far. 
  4. A comprehensive plan for dealing with utilities up and down Maple Avenue.  Town plans to fund an initial feasibility study within the next couple of years, based on the capital plan.  I don’t think this will be done before the end of the MAC moratorium.
  5. An analysis of likely MAC impacts on Town infrastructureNothing in the works so far.
  6. An analysis of the likely impact on local schools.  Nothing.
  7. Methods to include affordable housing under MAC.  Nothing so far, and not feasible under MAC as currently written.

So, in terms of the seven action items mentioned by Town Council, the Town has taken an initial step on item 1 (visual guidelines and code changes).  And that’s it, in terms of work that will be available by the end of the MAC moratorium.  At some point, the Town will get an initial feasibility report on item 4 (putting the power lines underground), but that will be well after the end of the MAC moratorium.  For the other items, there’s no follow-up that has been made public.

This is pretty much the way I called it at the time.  It certainly looks like Town Council has no plans for substantive review of MAC zoning, let alone substantive changes.  At present, the entire plan is to have Citizens rate pictures of buildings, and then do some unspecified followup based on that.  The only unexpected change is that, for the first time, the Town is actually going to have somebody knowledgeable look at the issue of burying the power lines.  But that initial look won’t be ready until well after the end of the MAC moratorium.  And, of course, well after the Town has already committed developers to burying the lines one property at a time.


Visual preference survey results.

In this section I planned to do a summary of the results of the visual preference survey.  But I’ve run out of steam.  And, honestly, there’s not much to say.

Here’s a quick rundown, based on notes from three people who attended the 11/15/2018 meeting of the Board of Architectural review where Town staff presented the initial results of the survey.

About a dozen people attended the meeting, of which many were anti-MAC advocates and some were developers.  By report, only three people stayed to the end of the presentation.  And they were all people with serious concerns about MAC zoning.

So, to hammer that home, in terms of community interest in the results — zip.  Bear that in mind when you read the propaganda piece write up that the Town will put in the next Pravda Vienna Voice.  I’m sure they will make much of the fact that more than 1000 Town residents took the survey.   I’m equally sure that they’ll skip the fact that just three people with serious concerns about MAC bothered to hear about all the results.

Town staff presented the ratings — essentially the raw data — but that was more-or-less it.  The ratings can be found here (.pdf) on the Town website.  If you can make firm conclusions from those ratings, you’re better at data analysis than I am.

As I noted some months ago, it’s almost impossible to take ratings of a collection of pictures like this and find something that clearly translates into actionable policy.  The modern approach to this would use use computer-generated graphics that only differ along a single dimension (e.g., height) to determine preferences (e.g., for building height).

But this survey used carefully-selected pictures of buildings.  That process muddies any interpretation you might want to make.

Let me give you an example.  Every picture in the “buildings” portion of this had at least four stories.  By eye, the pictures with mixed three- and four-story buildings were more highly rated.  The Town is probably going to say “people prefer variation in building height”.   But in fact, this could just signal that people prefer shorter buildings, and the only pictures that Town allowed into the survey with short buildings were those with varying building height.

Even then … so what?  How strongly do people prefer “varying building height”?  Because the scale has no natural “anchor points”, you can’t tell whether the survey respondents had a slight preference, or whether they would be protesting in the streets if there were no variation in building height.

And even, even then, so what?  The MAC guidelines already call for variation in building height.  And builders have (e.g.) proposed four-story buildings with minimal variation in the height of the parapets (as in the Marco Polo/Vienna Market project).  And the Town OK’d that.  What, exactly, is supposed to change based on this new survey?

Anyway, so far, this meets expectations.  In the sense that I don’t expect anything new to come out of this, other than the Town to justify what it has already done.   And take up a lot of time doing it.  Even if the “visual guidelines” that are supposed to flow from this, that will somehow be different from what’s already in the MAC statute, are just that — guidelines.  They are not enforceable parts of the MAC statute.