I’m going to have to ditch the postcard alerts, updated 1/15/2019

Posted on December 14, 2018

My system of using postcards to keep people informed about MAC zoning no longer works.  There are too many buildings in play, events are occurring too fast, the Town’s moratorium on new MAC proposals hasn’t actually stopped the Town from furthering new MAC proposals, and I typically have (maybe) one-to-three days’ notice that the one of the Town’s various boards (Town Council, Planning Commission, Board of Architectural Review, and so on) will be discussing some relevant item.

For example, I only just (1/14/2019) found out that Kensington Assisted Living, who wants to buy 415 Maple Avenue West (currently BB&T bank), wants the Town to give it the public alley behind that property.   So:

  1. This is not (yet) a building with a MAC proposal, and
  2. In theory, there is a moratorium on further MAC proposals right now,
  3. But the only way an assisted living facility can be built on Maple is under MAC.
  4. So if we’re talking about this assisted living facility (the second of two proposed for Vienna), then
  5. Hey, the Town is actually continuing to push new MAC projects, despite the moratorium (which I would not have guessed they would do),
  6. And once again I get less than a day’s notice that this was going to happen.

Bottom line is, I can barely keep up.  I mean, I thought there was a moratorium on new MAC development, yet here’s the Town Council discussing giving a public alley to a new MAC development.    With as-close-as-possible to zero public notice beforehand.

If that’s how this game is played, then postcards are far too slow.  If I continue to send notifications, it will have to be via email.  Those of you who signed up for a postcard, but did not leave an email address, I’ll send you a postcard notifying you of this.  For those of you who left an email, I’ll send you an email.

What follows here is my original post.

Plans for two additional MAC buildings are currently being processed by the Town of Vienna.  As of now, it appears virtually certain that both projects will be approved by Town Council.  So I’m not going to waste my time pointing out all the things that I dislike about them.

Instead, I’m going to spell out the public steps that all MAC proposals have to pass through.  In broad outline, these are:

  1. Board of Architectural Review.
  2. Planning Commission.
  3. Town Council.

My main point is that there is no schedule for these events.  Given that every proposal has to pass through the exact same set of steps, you’d think there would be some sort of schedule — even a tentative schedule — posted for each project.  But that’s not true.  Proposals work their way through the system at the convenience of Town staff and Town Council, subject to an occasional legally-mandated deadline.

My second point is that there is often almost no lead time given to interested citizens.  A case in point was the Board of Architectural Review work session concerning the proposal for 380 Maple Avenue West.   This is the first public discussion of that building by the Town of Vienna.  By law, these work sessions must be done in public, so that the citizens know what their government is up to.  And the Town provided less than 24 hours’ advance notice regarding this meeting.   The notice for this meeting — for 8 AM today — was posted mid-yesterday.   You can pick up the agenda from this page, at least for a while (.pdf) and see that, yep, the agenda for the 12/14/2018 meeting was printed on 12/13/2018.

So, I guess that meets the letter of the law.  But in terms of having transparent government, I’d say that flunks.

In theory, the Town website has a notification system that will at least let you know, via email, when a meeting has been scheduled by one of the Town Boards.  But try as I might, I have never been able to get that system to work reliably for me.  Basically, the only way I know that (e.g. ) an agenda for a meeting has been posted is to pull up the Town’s website and look for it.

And the reason this matters is that this is typical.  The less-than-24-hour lead time is not the exception, it’s standard operating procedure.  Except in those instances where the Town is legally obliged to advertise a meeting, a lead time of a day to a few days is what you get.  The sole exception is where the Town is legally obliged to advertise a meeting, in which case it does the absolute minimum by publishing an advertisement in the legal section of a local newspaper (the Washington Times).

I doubt anyone in the modern world was made aware of a Town of Vienna meeting by reading the legal notices in the Washington Times.  But that’s the only formal way in which the Town provides systematic advance notice of (some) meetings.

This is part of an ongoing pattern where meetings regarding proposed developments are just not broadly advertised.  For example, in order to hear what Sunrise Assisted Living had to say about their proposal, you just had to be in on the chain of gossip about it.  Similarly, a meeting with the developers of 380 Maple West was well-attended only because one of the handful of individuals who got an invitation decided to share that invitation more broadly.

Taken together — the multi-step process, the lack of a schedule (even a tentative schedule), the lack of advance notice, sometimes the lack of any formal notice — all of this makes it extremely difficult for the average citizen to keep up with what’s going on.

This is why I began sending out postcards to remind individuals of forthcoming events.  Barring some sort of direct notice like that, it’s virtually impossible to know what proposal will be addressed at what meeting, and when.

I also believe this is the vast majority of respondents to my survey — even those who were well aware of MAC zoning — did not know about the most recent proposed buildings submitted under MAC zoning.  By and large, people only learn about MAC buildings when they are quite far along in the approval process.  People don’t, in general, get the opportunity to object early in the process, because they are never made aware that the proposals will be discussed.

Finally, the lack of lead time from the Town makes my postcard-based reminders largely obsolete.  They only worked in the past because, through a variety of circumstances, I knew people who somehow knew when the Town was going to discuss certain projects.  That is, I had more lead time than the public notices allowed.   But if I have to rely on the public notices alone, I simply do not have the time to get a postcard delivered.  (Postcards are  NOT First Class mail and so have longer delivery times than First Class mail does.)