Post #487: We’ve lost

Posted on December 10, 2019

By we, I mean people who don’t like MAC zoning as written.  The only twist here is that it’ll take 18 to 24 months to determine just how badly we’ve lost.

What I’m talking about is the item discussed around 10:45 at last night’s Town Council meeting.  At that point, they got around to addressing a proposal by Councilmember Potter:

I. 19-1527 Motion by Councilmember Potter for comprehensive reorganization and update of Subdivision and Zoning Ordinances, Chapters 17 and 18 of Town Code.

This was passed 6-1, with Councilman Majdi the only dissenting vote.

What:  Zoning Czar

First, let me put in a copy of the scope of work for this task, then mock describe it. So you can read it yourself, and don’t have to rely on my interpretation.

Lengthy caveat:  What you see below is what Councilman Noble assured me was the scope of work (SOW) for this task.  I originally thought that I could not get a copy of the SOW, because nothing was posted with the Town Council meeting agenda.  But Councilman Noble corrected me and pointed me to one item from a Town Council work session from a couple of months ago.  That’s the SOW below.  I am fairly sure that no other SOW document has been made public by the Town of Vienna, irrespective of whether or not Town Council members have or have not seen such a more recent draft, if such a more recent draft does or does not exist.  I.e., having been explicitly directed by a Town official to look at this SOW, well, by golly, this is the SOW I’m looking at.  In case you wonder why I’m saying all this, I really hate being wrong, and so I’m covering my ass, just in case there actually is some updated scope of work that the Town is using but has not yet made public.

Draft Scope of Services to Reorganize and Update Subdivision and Zoning Ordinances - Oct 2019-1

In a nutshell, this task says that Town Council is letting Planning and Zoning staff do the rewrite of MAC zoning.  And of all other zoning in the Town of Vienna. And they are getting about a quarter-million dollars to hire the consultant of their choice to help them do that.

And, while the examples of possible zoning changes given in the document are innocuous, note that there are absolutely no limits given.   Taken at face value, absolutely nothing about the current zoning is off-limits. In fact, it’s pretty darned explicit about the fact that anything goes — new types of zones, altering existing zones, altering rules, changing the zoning map — that’s all in there.

I would like to say that Town Council has given Planning and Zoning a blank check to rewrite the zoning rules.  But that’s not correct, because, of course, the SOW itself was written by Planning and Zoning staff.  The correct statement is that Town Council has allowed Planning and Zoning staff to give itself that blank check, with the authority to recommend modifying any zoning rules, anywhere, in any way they see fit.

And once you realize who wrote the SOW, the rest of it falls into place.

Now the stern and exacting language circumscribing and limiting Planning and Zoning staff behavior makes perfect sense.  Here’s the full extent of the limits on Planning and Zoning actions.  Ready:

Staff from the Department of Planning and Zoning will manage the project with the Planning Commission serving as the primary advisory board, working closely with the Town Council.

Man, that’s some tough language there.  Not just working with, but working closely with Town Council.  Yeah, buddy, that setting some hard limits.  (Again, realize this was written by Planning and Zoning staff).

Given how much loose-cannon behavior Planning and Zoning has already exhibited (e.g., Marco Pologate), I’m flabbergasted that Town Council would just swallow that whole.  But there it is.  That right there is the full extent of limits and controls on Planning and Zoning staff.  Seems a touch ill-defined to me.

And, of course, for getting input from the citizens, you’d think that if not one, but two different Town Council members had insisted on doing a proper random-sample survey … well, surely that would be part of the plan.  But once again, Town Council didn’t write the SOW.  So the “citizen input” side of this rejects the whole idea of getting representative and objective data, in favor of the same loosey-goosey approach that Planning and Zoning applied to MAC.  As I have noted repeatedly, that both allows them to propagandize, and allows them to substitute their subjective interpretation of what citizens want in place of any objective data on what citizens want.  In short, Town Council will be told what the citizens want, based on what Planning and Zoning’s says they want.  They same way “the citizens want 28′ wide sidewalks” came out of Planning and Zoning looking at ratings of pictures.  And if Planning and Zoning doesn’t like what people say, heck, they’ll just ignore it.

The quickest way I can describe this is that the Town of Vienna just created a Zoning Czar.  The Director of Planning and Zoning has been given free rein to recommend changing any aspect of zoning, as she sees fit, in any way she sees fit.  She’s been given a quarter-million dollars to hire a consultant to help her do that.  And if there are any limits whatsoever, on that process, they are so vague as to be meaningless.   But she will have to work closely with Town Council.  And, I believe, whatever she ultimately comes up with, Town Council will be given the sole option of taking it or leaving it, as a package.

How:  Beats me.

But the truly godawful part of this was not even what was decided.  It seems ill-advised to me, to allow an aggressively pro-develoment Planning and Zoning department to write its own ticket.  Just as a business matter, that seems to be courting mischief.

But the truly noxious aspect of this is what went on in the Town Council meeting.

I’ll give a link to my audio recording here, as an mp3 file on Google Drive, so that you can listen and form your own judgement.   This portion of the meeting starts 2:36:30 into my recording of the meeting.  (Please note that I did not record the entire meeting).

See how it sounds to you.  Here’s how it looked to me.

First, it was clear that the outcome of this had already been decided, in advance, out of the public view.  I had heard rumors of a Noah’s Ark meeting behind closed doors.  It’s pretty likely, based on the (non-)discussion at the meeting, that this was true.   What we got to see in this public meeting was pure theater. 

Second, hand-in-hand with that, there was zero public discussion of substantive issues.  (Caveat below).  The entire discussion consisted of one Town Council member after another praising Councilman Potter for his wisdom.  About how lovely it was to have a united Town Council.  How appropriate for the holiday season that peace, joy, and love should break out, and that we should bask in love for all of humankind.

OK, I made that last one up, but it’s not far off.

There were, as I recall it, exactly two substantive points.  Councilmember Patel called for doing a real, hard-numbers, random-sample survey to get a fix on what citizens actually think.  She got no response, and I would bet much money that’s not going to happen.  And Councilman Majdi said he wasn’t going to vote for it, because (and I paraphrase) it repeats the same mistake that the Town made with MAC zoning in the first place, which was proceeding without first gather information on traffic, economics, and similar factors.

Other than that, the entire discussion was simply peace-joy-love.  Which you may think sounds great, but which isn’t businesslike, and truly is not a good way to go about going the people’s business.


Well, who’s kidding whom here.  Town Council has placed the Director of Planning and Zoning in the drivers’ seat, given her ample staff, money to pick the consultant of her choice, placed no restrictions on what she can do, and offered only the vaguest possible management guidelines (work closely with).  All done via a SOW document authored by — Planning and Zoning.

Sure, they’ll work closely — with the Town Council members who agree with them.  Just exactly as they have done for the past couple of years.  But get out of line, and let’s see just how closely they work with you then.

So, seriously, what do you think is going to happen?  Given the setup, where do you think this ends up, 18 to 24 months from now?

I have my opinion.  I could run this into the ground, but let me limit it to one aspect.  This is the Planning and Zoning director who relentlessly pushed for taller buildings.  You know, I’d bet that somehow, the revised MAC statute is going to include taller buildings.  Anybody want to bet against that?

And at the end of that period, for Town Council’s will face what I described in Post #483.  Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.  Because they have commingled the plain-vanilla “clean up” of the code with all of the additional substantive changes that Planning and Zoning would care to make.

I’d really like to know how they got everyone but Majdi on board.  But we never will know, because that part of the public’s business was done in private.  All we will get to see publicly is peace and love, at the last Town Council meeting, and then whatever-it-is that comes out of this staff-run, staff-dominated process a year and a half from now.  This is nobody’s idea of a businesslike way to run things.  Guess I need to learn to peace out, or something.