Post #495: We’ve lost, really. I’m not kidding.

Posted on December 13, 2019

People don’t seem to have taken my Post #487 seriously.  Based on the reactions I’ve gotten, some people think I’m wrong, others think it was hyperbole.  I think it’s just accurate.

So without belaboring this, let me do three more things.  First, I’ll summarize three additional bits of detail that I think I now know, about this new-new plan to redo MAC zoning. Then I’ll explain how I believe this proposed MAC rewrite is going to work.   Then I’m hanging it up for the rest of the year.  I need a break.

If you want the background, read Post #487.  Briefly, the Town Council has decided to have Planning and Zoning redo all the zoning in Town, including MAC, as one big project.  And they’re giving Planning and Zoning a quarter-million dollars to hire the consultant of their choice to help them do that.  And then, as I understand it, just as with the original MAC vote, Town Council will be have a take-it-or-leave it up-or-down vote on the entire package.

My new information comes from Councilman Potter, who took the time to email me earlier this week.

First, he explained that he was the one who set this up, meeting separately with Town staff and various Town Council members.  So this new development was the outcome of his intense effort to get collaboration among all the parties involved.

The second new bit of information, again from Councilman Potter, is that there is no actual scope of work.  Instead, the scope of work, for what the Town Council voted to approve last Monday, is “in the initial stages of development”.

Third, the actual scope of work will be developed by having the Town Manager and Planning and Zoning director meet with each Councilmember.  In a spirit of cooperation.

So, for one thing, this explains why I somehow could not get the correct scope of work for this task.  First I said I could not find a public copy of the scope of work for this new task, because the Town didn’t post one with this agenda item.  Then Councilman Noble said I was wrong, and directed me to a scope of work from a meeting roughly two months ago.  So I wrote that one up, with a lengthy “caveat” section about not being sure about the scope of work.  Subsequently, I have been told that this effort was labeled incorrect as well, on social media, because I still did not have the correct scope of work.

And now I realize my fundamental problem.  The Town Council voted for this, last Monday, without knowing what “this” is.  They literally agreed on this new plan for dealing with MAC without knowing what the plan actually is.  The actual plan is still literally “to be determined”.

My basic confusion is that I never even considered that the Town Council would take an issue as important as this, and just wing it.  It never even occurred to me that as the Town Council was deciding to revamp the basic fabric of the Town, they’d do it off-the-cuff.  That this has gone from “the most divisive issue in Vienna for decades” to something you’d decide now, with details to be determine later.

The fact that all the details were tbd certainly didn’t come out in the “peace and love” discussion on Monday night.  But that appears to be exactly what they did.  They voted to approve something, and they’ll find out what they actually approved, some months from now.

Worse, it looks to me like that whole process of deciding exactly what they are going to do is going to be done in private, out of the public view, using the Noah’s Ark meeting (Post #480).  That scope of work is going to be hashed out by having the Town Manager and Planning and Zoning director meet with each Councilmember.  Thus they dodge around Virginia Freedom of Information Act requirements that all public meetings be open, by never having more than two Town Council members in the room at once.

Just keep that in mind the next time Town Council members start spouting off about “transparency” in government.

Next I’m going to bring up one little irony, and it’s about the use of a consultant to help straighten out MAC.  I don’t normally talk about myself, but I think this is worth saying.

When I first learned about MAC zoning, I was so aghast that I wrote to Town Council and offered them $50,000 to contract with an independent consultant to look the situation over and offer advice.  Not my expert, not the Town’s expert, but a true independent look at what the Town had done.  For free — I was volunteering to pay for it.  (And, to be clear, that was and is a lot of money, to me.)  My only restriction is that I would not control the consultant, and neither would they.  Truly independent look at the law.  For free.

The Town turned me down flat.  The answer was that the MAC law was fine as-is, they’d had lots of expert input, it didn’t require any changes, it was for the good of the Town, it was all about preserving small-town Vienna, and so on.  Basically,  take a hike.

Fast-forward about a year and a half, and … the Town is in the process of hiring a consulting firm to help sort out the problems with MAC zoning.  Only the key difference is, it’s not an independent consultant.  It’s going to be a consultant under the control of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

I worked as an economic consultant for more than 20 years.  You can definitely find some consultants who view it as their job to give you the answer you want.  And you always find consultants who see it as their job to take direction from the client.  Because that’s part of the job, and if you don’t do that, you don’t get the work.

So the difference between what I proposed almost two years ago, and now, is not just in the overall scope of work.  It’s in the independence of the consultant.

Just look back at the original MAC process to see what I mean.  The consultants originally wanted to divide Maple Avenue into three distinct zones, each of which was (in hindsight) roughly as large as the Mosaic District.  But by the end of the day, they’d had that nonsense beaten out of them in favor of a single zone, not because that was in the best interest of the Town, but because the Maple Avenue land owners who were running that process all wanted an equal slice of the pie.  And so somewhere along the line, some consultant ended up giving the Town what the Town’s steering committee asked for.

If you think this new MAC process is going to happen any differently, then you’re living in a dream world.  Or, as likely, you’ve never done consulting for a living.

Under this new plan, not only are you going to get a revised MAC, it will come wrapped in the sanctimony of the consultant’s blessing.  Town staff may now direct the consultant as to the general outcome that they want.  Then pretend that the results reflect the independent wisdom of their expert consultant.

I’m telling you that from experience.  Along with firing people, avoiding having to be held responsible for a decision is one of the main reasons that Fortune 500’s hire consultants.  You get done what you need or want to get done.  But you get to keep your hands clean.  A year and a half from now, everyone in Town government will be showing us their clean hands, and pointing at the consultant.

I guess I’ll end this with an anecdote about “spirit of cooperation” and Town staff.  At a recent Town Council work session, Councilman Majdi got everyone to agree that the Town should use “hard” traffic counts (meaning, actual traffic counts) in its estimates of MAC impact.  In fact, the Town’s traffic engineer helpfully volunteered that the Town had the equipment to do that.  But that, depending on the scope of the work, they might need to hire somebody to do that for them.

Fast forward to last night’s Planning Commission meeting, and there were two Town staffers, telling the PC that under no circumstances were they going to use actual traffic counts for any estimates of MAC building impacts.  Sometime between that work session, and yesterday, somebody decided they didn’t want us to know the actual traffic counts.  So that isn’t going to get done.

Mind you, it’s not merely that they aren’t going to use the actual traffic counts.  Nothing wrong with doing the traffic counts, then deciding whether to use actual data or look up some national average in a manual and use that instead.  It’s that they’re going to prevent us from knowing the actual traffic counts.  So, e.g., at at the Suntrust Bank, we’ll have no choice but to assume that a car enters or exits that lot every ten seconds, right now.  No matter how ludicrous that assumption is (see Post $465).

I believe that’s indicative of the cooperation you’ll get from Town staff on this new project.  They’ll cooperate … as long as it’s what they want to do.  But if not, I think its wishful thinking to expect them to operate with a true spirit of cooperation.  Or, at least, as far as MAC goes, I sure haven’t seen that so far.


The holidays are upon us.  So I’m going to stop blogging, at least until after the new year.  It’s just too damned depressing.  And given how the game is now rigged, it’s increasingly hard for me to see the point of it.

To recap, I believe this is now the straight story:

On Monday, Town Council voted to approve a plan that rolls a rewrite of MAC zoning into an overall rewrite of every aspect of Town of Vienna zoning.  But, as of now, there’s no actual detailed plan for how they are going to go about that.  All the things that favor our pro-development Planning and Zoning department have already been granted — ever aspect of zoning is up for grabs, and there’s a quarter-million dollars to hire the consultant of choice.  But all the things that might put in some “checks and balances” are still in the process of development.  And that development will be done in private, using meetings structured to avoid triggering Virginia open meeting requirements.  And I think that, a year and a half to two years from now, Town Council will be take a yes-or-no vote on whatever package of changes Planning and Zoning develops.

If you think this is going to come out well, for those of us who wanted to moderate the size and density of MAC buildings, you are welcome to think that.  But I don’t.  I think we’ve lost.

See you next year, I guess.  This is my last blog post for 2019.  I may reshuffle and reorganize some content on this site in the coming weeks.  Repost some older stuff.  But there will be no more new content this year.