Post #542: Needless risk

Posted on March 9, 2020

Source:  Town of Vienna.  This is the agenda for tonight’s Town Council meeting.

Dear Town Council and Planning Commission:  Please extend the MAC moratorium, right now.   Please don’t wait until the last minute, because that’s looking like an increasingly risky strategy.

If you agree with that, you don’t need to read the rest of this.

Edit:  I needed to make two corrections to the original post.  One is for the Vice-Mayor, which I misstate.  A more substantive correction is that, in this case, the Planning Commission’s role is purely advisory.  They would make a recommendation to the Town Council, but Town Council could chose to ignore such a recommendation.

First, line up a few facts.

The moratorium on new MAC building applications ends June 30, 2020.  If that moratorium is not extended before then, the Town is legally obliged to accept additional applications for MAC buildings.

Extending the moratorium takes two public hearings (one by Planning Commission, one by Town Council) and on-order-of six weeks of calendar time (See Post #539).

Town Council agreed to rewrite all the zoning in Vienna, and abandon their efforts to rewrite MAC.  Staff are in the process of letting a quarter-million-dollar contract for help in doing that rewrite.  That contract includes MAC zoning.

Town Council agreed that the MAC moratorium would be extended to allow time for a complete rewrite of the Town building codes.   Town Council is waiting for Town Staff to tell it how long the extension of the moratorium needs to be to dovetail with the overall zoning rewrite.

In an new twist, Town Council member Noble may move to get rid of MAC zoning entirely, but will make that motion only after the Town has voted to fund the existing consulting contract for rewriting our zoning.

This evening’s Town Council meeting has essentially zero public business conducted.  As pictured above.  Town Council will approve two routine contracts (paving and debris removal, total of $185K), set the times for three public hearings.  Best guess, that’ll take half an hour.  They have the time to listen to a presentation about the construction on I-66.

What is wrong with this picture.

There are so many elephants in this room that it’s hard to decide where to start.  But, briefly, delaying the extension of the MAC moratorium to the last minute takes on a host of unnecessary risks. 

Coronavirus.  As of last night, we had two known cases in NoVA, and a DC case where the infected person was handing out communion at a DC church.  So, it’s here, and nobody knows what the consequences will be, particularly for public gatherings.  To be clear, extending that moratorium involves not one but two separate legally-required public hearings.  As I understand it, you literally cannot conduct this business without having public hearings.

As an aside, the Town also needs to hold at least three public hearings in the next few months do its routine budgetary business.  So if holding public hearings starts to be a problem, the MAC extension will be competing with other important and necessary business, such as passing the Town’s budget for the next year.

Pro-MAC lame ducks.   Recall that the last time the Town Council had two pro-MAC lame duck members, Town Council hustled through not one but two MAC applications prior to seating the new members.  (Fairfax County, by contrast, does not allow lame ducks to vote on land use measures.)

Now we’re back in a situation where we have two pro-MAC lame ducks on Town Council, but this time they run the show (i.e., Mayor and Town Council member).  You have to wonder just how they’d react to the idea that the moratorium didn’t get extended in time, and (e.g.) the owners of the Giant Food property submitted an application.  Would they be torn up about making a mistake, or, because they so strongly favor development, would they consider that a fortuitous parting gift to the citizens of Vienna?  If things don’t go smoothly with the moratorium extension, would they take all measures necessary to get that moratorium extended, or not?

Town Council could easily deal with this moratorium extension right now.  Please recall that when Town Council extended it the last time, the Director of Planning and Zoning assured them that it would take little time to rewrite MAC.  So, Town Council explicitly noted that if they finished the rewrite early, they could reinstate MAC early.  In other words, they can always shorten the moratorium later, if they want to.  The are on record saying that the last time.  All they need to do now is extend it by some substantial period of time.

If they want to kill MAC, at some later time, they can make that more controversial move as a separate (and riskier) step.  It’s not as if there’s some limited number of motions that the Town can make.  Recall that the last MAC moratorium had a hard time making it through the Planning Commission, due largely to a couple of die-hard pro-MAC members.   Suppose the motion to kill MAC fails at the Planning Commission level?  If they undertake that motion to kill MAC outright, as outlined by Councilman Noble, and it fails, there will not be time to extend the moratorium legally.

I got that last part wrong, and have been corrected by a Planning Commission member.  The Planning Commission’s role in this would be purely advisory, and the Town Council could choose to ignore their advice.  Thus a “no” vote at the Planning Commission level would not stop this process, it would just make it a bit awkward for Town Council.  That said, if they go down the road of killing MAC outright, I think that has to pass or MAC would be reinstated on June 30.  By the time Town Council voted on killing MAC outright, there would not be enough time left to jump through the hoops required for a separate vote to extend the moratorium.

At least one aside here:  I find it hard to make sense of the timing of the motion to kill MAC.  The plan is to wait until after Town Council has let a contract that includes rewriting MAC, and only then vote to kill MAC, thus reducing the contract scope of work but …  not the contract dollar amount?

In any case, this can be done as a separate step, that’s the key point here.  If you want to kill it outright, you can do that separately from extending the moratorium.

Real businesses take no unnecessary risks

People like to think of business as risk-takers.  Bold and daring Capitalism, if you will.  But in my experience (working two decades as a consultant to large health care companies), I learned that nothing could be further from the truth.

Successful businesses do not take unnecessary risks.  They eliminate all possible risk that can be eliminated.  Sure, they take risks.  Every investment involves risk.  But they only take the risks that they have to take.  They never leave things to chance if they can be nailed down instead.

With that as background, whenever I see an organization take risk unnecessarily, it sets off alarm bells.  It’s just so wrong to do that.  And so, when I look at the things I’ve laid out in this posting, the alarm bells ring.  Doesn’t mean that the probability of disaster is high.  It just means that I see people courting disaster for no good reason.

  • A Town Council meeting with virtually no business being done.
  • A looming deadline for extending the MAC moratorium.
  • Uncertainty as to whether or not you’re even going to be able to have public meetings throughout the period needed to extend that MAC moratorium.
  • An apparent change-of-plan mid-stream, from including MAC in the Town’s zoning rewrite (and basing the moratorium end on that) to maybe killing MAC outright.
  • Timing that, as of now, takes this right down to the last possible meeting.

Just ask yourself this question:  Is extending the MAC moratorium at least as important as issuing an Official Town Proclamation in favor of National Athletic Trainer Month?  (Again, see image, top of positing.)  If the answer is yes, well, there are all kinds of ways in which the moratorium extension could come off the rails. Please don’t want to the last minute.