If the community says No, No, No, then we’ll have to start all over, 3/4/2019

Posted on March 2, 2019

This page explains a critical step coming up in the development of MAC zoning.  Turns out, the Town is going to ask the citizens what they think about MAC, and then act on that.  Which sounds pretty good, until you realize that the way they are proposing to do that is … confused, to be as polite as I can about it.

Read on and decide for yourself.  This shouldn’t take more than five minutes.

Start by listening to this clip, from the Director of Planning and Zoning, at the 2/11/2019 Town Council work session.  At issue is a set of two 2-hour “workshops” that the Town will hold regarding MAC, and how the future path of MAC reform depends critically on what Vienna citizens say about MAC, in those workshops.

Taken at face value, if Vienna citizens don’t like what they see, the Town will re-think MAC.  If we say “no, no, no” then they may have to start all over.  So there’s some type of yes-or-no decision that needs to be made, about MAC, based on what the citizens think of it.

Let me be clear that the entire Town Council is talking about the outcome of these workshops in that same way.   Speaker after speaker, time after time, the end-of-March workshops will provide critical input on how citizens regard MAC, and how the Town should proceed from here.   Here are some clips of Town Council members and Town Manager from the 2/11/2019 and 2/25/2019 Town Council sessions.

This is several clips, separated by brief periods of silence.  The workshops are March 29 and March 30:

All in all, this sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  The Town is going to measure public opinion about MAC, and the direction MAC will take from here will depend critically on that.  So if public opinion runs contrary to the direction this is going (“no, no, no”), then the Town will make fundamental changes to MAC.

It sound pretty good until you ask one simple question:  HOW.  How, exactly, is the Town going measure public opinion and make its yes/no decision on rethinking MAC?  And that’s when you realize this is baloney.

How will they get a cross-section of public opinion on MAC?  They won’t.

What quantities will they use to measure public opinion?  None. 

What’s the threshold, then, for determining that the public has said “no, no, no” to MAC?  There isn’t one.

And best of all, who makes the interpretation on what, exactly, public opinion is?  Town staff with a huge vested interest in the answer.

Just to set this up, think about voting.  Suppose they put this to a vote:  rescind MAC, yes or no.  First, you’d have a well-defined quantitative measure of opinion.  People would vote yes or no.  Next, you’d have a well defined threshold at which action would take place.  If the majority said yes, you’d rescind MAC.  Otherwise, no action needed.  Third, you don’t have to depend any vested interests to tell you what the vote outcome was.   The voting would be run by Fairfax County, not by the Town.

Now, that would be a clearly defined way to assess public opinion about MAC and act on it.  (N.B., They can’t actually put it to a vote, legally,  in the Commonwealth. But they could (e.g.) do a proper random-sample survey of Town residents, and ask that question.)

Now imagine a decision-making process that has none of that.   The complete opposite of voting. That’s what the Town is going to do.

So, I kid you not, this is the plan: The Town will hold two “family friendly” interactive workshops, the purpose of which is to show you the benefits of MAC zoning.  These will be held at the Vienna Community Center on a Friday evening and the following Saturday morning at the end of March.  There will be interactive work stations, and 3-D models, and duplo blocks, and virtual reality.   The point of which is to show you the benefits of MAC and the revisions to MAC.

So let’s call that what it is.  The Town is putting on a couple of two-hour propaganda sessions.   E.g., information on the potential downsides of these MAC buildings will be nowhere to be seen.

And, if you want to, you can give an opinion, or many opinions — via Post-It notes.  You will be allowed to put Post-It notes, with your opinions, on blow-ups of the draft regulations.   You can hear that here, gleaned from three different Town meetings over the past few weeks.  (The Post-It notes are about 40 seconds in, and that’s repeated again toward the end.)

As a person who has done surveys professionally, I’m going to point out that this is a classic example of “The Sample With the Built-in Bias”, straight out of How to Lie With Statistics.  The interactive stuff, the virtual reality, the duplo blocks, and the basic premise of showing the benefits of MAC zoning, these all are targeting a population substantially younger and more pro-MAC than the true cross-section of Vienna citizens.  Heck, unless they are checking IDs at the door, there’s not even a guarantee that the people attending this are Vienna residents.    There is literally nothing to stop (e.g.) a developer from having 20 employees come in an pack the board with positive Post-It comments about the MAC zoning items that most strongly affect that builder’s profits.

So, to recap:  Town is going to judge Citizen sentiment, based on reading of a bunch of Post-It notes, from the folks who care to attend a “family-friendly” meeting showcasing the benefits of MAC zoning.  These may — or may not — be actual Vienna residents.  And the person who is going to tell us what that all means is the Director of Planning and Zoning, who has a huge vested interest in seeing MAC proceed as she has planned it.

While that is troubling enough, it doesn’t stop there.  In the context of citizens’ comments from the Town’s visual preference survey, the Director of Planning and Zoning is already said, at length, in various meetings, that summarizing comments is a bad idea, and as a Professional, she won’t do it.

So, taken at face value, even if she were playing this on the level, she couldn’t come up with a yes or no summary of Vienna public opinion on MAC.  She literally doesn’t believe in doing that.

So, to be clear, we need a yes or no answer, I think.  Yes things are fine, or “no, no, no” they are not.  Based on citizen input.  But there’s no plan for doing that in any rational way.  Instead, there’s no quantitative information.  There’s no prescribed threshold for what constitutes a “No” from the citizens.  There’s no defined process for consolidating whatever information they do get — from whatever citizens want to attend these sessions, for however many Post-It notes any one citizen cares to write — into any overall judgment.  And the person who is going to tell use the answer a) simply rejects the notion that comments can be summarized and b) has a vested interest in the answer.

Much like the visual preference survey, instead of asking simple, straightforward questions of a random sample of citizens, Town Council has left it up to Planning and Zoning to do something, with some sample of convenience, and then read the tea leaves and tell us what they think it means.

Just two questions remain.  Is this really the best the Town can do?  And why are Town Council members taking this seriously?