Battle lines were drawn at last week’s Metropolitan Planning Commission meeting over the Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan. It will be a measure of the health of our local democracy whether this contest is decided by whose argument is more compelling or just loudest.
Opponents of the plan included developer Scott Davis, who recited the takings clause from the federal constitution and warned of thousands of lawsuits if slope protections pass. Lonnie Harris threatened retaliation by landowners, reminding MPC that owners of land zoned agricultural could despoil slopes and adjacent streams without asking any government body for a permit. Harris called for tax reductions on sloped property, apparently unaware the plan he was protesting includes them.
It was a common theme, passionate, principled words and a loose grip on facts.
Already, MPC had postponed the plan once, but commissioner George Ewart joked that he is “a slow reader,” and tried to further delay by insisting that MPC notify owners of an estimated 62,000 sloped parcels by mail, warning them of possible zoning changes. He did not speculate on how the owners of those properties remained ignorant of the task force’s efforts throughout two years of well publicized meetings occasionally punctuated by threats of violence.
Only County Commission has the power to change zoning ordinances, and they have established procedures for public notification. MPC is but an advisory body, and Ewart was attempting to usurp power from the legislative body with his delaying tactic.
He and commissioner Wes Stowers insisted on removing all language pertaining to slopes between 15 and 25 percent from the plan, claiming this would bring too much of the county under regulation. After half an hour of back and forth on that topic, MPC head Mark Donaldson reminded them the county already regulates slopes steeper than 15 percent.
Donaldson described the plan’s recommendations as “radical changes to development standards that are friendlier to developers.” Among those recommendations are reduced setbacks, density swaps, and increased flexibility, so developers can use thoughtful site planning to fit more homes onto land than current regulations allow, provided they work with natural contours rather than bulldozing cuts into slopes.
Steep, forested slopes can be placed into conservation easements, reducing property taxes, and developers could also acquire density bonuses for projects on flatter parcels by conserving steeper land elsewhere in the county.
What the plan forbids is commercial development on slopes, but parking constraints and higher construction costs already make such projects unfeasible.
Nine community meetings and more than 40 task force meetings were held over two years during the formulation of the plan, and the task force consisted of diverse interests, including developers. The process was inclusive and democratic, and major changes like the ones Stowers proposed amount to a subversion of the community’s will. Commissioner Bart Carey thanked the task force for its hard work, but undercut his gratitude by calling task force co-chair Tony Norman “Gary.”
Tempers flared when developers took the podium to denounce the plan. It’s possible that the task force’s other co-chair, Joe Hultquist, might have displayed similar emotions, but he approached the podium several times and was never acknowledged by Chair Robert Anders. Instead, emotions on the pro-plan side consisted mainly of exasperation over developers protesting for concessions they’ve already gotten. A few commissioners, supposedly experts and professionals, appeared not to have read even the two-page summary of the plan.
The dividing lines on this issue are all too familiar these days. On one side you have reasonable people grappling with the issues and deliberating toward solutions. On the other you have people whose principles are so strong they act as a force field repelling all facts, sure of what they deserve but oblivious to what they have.
The Hillside and Ridgetop Task Force is democracy working as it should, balancing interests and achieving common goals. If our community is strong and our leaders sensible, everyone can win, even those who don’t know what they are fighting for or against.