Representin’: A Column About the Metro Council

Is the planning process slightly cracked?

Given the closed-door state of American politics right now, it’s hard to imagine a small group of citizens actually registering a difference. That is the crux of the argument for participating in local politics: While Bush and his bloodhounds doom us to decades of apologizing and reestablishing basic Constitutional principles, we may take solace in the knowledge that persistence can sometimes, though certainly not always, make change in local government.

Real estate attorney Stephen T. Porter and a group of residents from the Tucker Station neighborhood have, after more than a year and a half of hair pulling, actually gotten a positive, pro-citizen change out of the Metro Council.

Take a moment to let that sink in.
Done? No? OK, 30 seconds.

In its meeting two weeks ago, the Council’s Planning/Zoning, Land Design and Development committee proposed changing the rules about citizen participation in the zoning process. Good thing: Currently, citizens don’t get equal time vis-à-vis developers to speak to the committee about plans made by the Metro Planning Commission, a separate body that is the first to decide what gets to go where in the way of new development.

Porter’s crusade for equal time began almost two years ago, when an attorney for developers of a 282-acre industrial park in Tucker Station got to talk about (and against) amendments the Planning Commission made to its proposal. Porter and others wanted to stand up for some of the changes and argue against others. They were never given the chance.

So last May, Porter sued the city. In response, he was allowed to speak about that development, which sort of nullified the lawsuit. But the subject of the suit was kicked back into the committee, which has been hearing testimony — from the public, developers, attorneys and others — about the matter of openness on and off ever since.

Councilman Tom Owen, D-8, chairs that committee. A serial advocate for openness in government, Owen has been known to randomly ask onlookers at committee meetings if they have questions, bucking the stuffy formality the Council maintains — sign up, say in advance what you’re talking about, speak for four minutes and walk away. Owen — along with Jim King, D-10, Hal Heiner, R-19, and vice-chair Glen Stuckel, R-17 — spent about two hours tweaking details of the new rules, the most striking of which allows both sides to speak equally on rezoning matters where the Planning Commission has made modifications.

Additionally, the committee chair has discretion over speakers — essentially, there are no limits on either side of a development case, given there’s a committee head who wants to hear it. And if things get too complicated for that setting, the County Attorney will arrange a special public meeting, hire a clutch of Clydesdales, provide a representative from each side five spears, and let them dual until A) death, or B) severe mutilation.
Only part of that last sentence is a lie.

Though the changes still must pass the full committee — that vote is set to happen soon — they represent significant progress for one of the most closed, weighted and often frustrating processes in the Metro.

“They knew they’d get sued again if they tried to pull the same thing again,” Porter told me in an interview a few days after the meeting. “This will keep them from getting sued.” He was laughing when he said that, but not when he complimented Councilman Owen for his courage. Porter seemed downright jubilant until I asked him what’s next.

To paraphrase: There are still major problems with the way the Planning Commission caters the process to developers. It’s understandable that they don’t want 25 citizens showing up to say the same thing. That’s where that “discretion of the chair” idea is handy.

It may be difficult for most to summon genuine interest in something as dense, prohibitive and unsexy as zoning procedure. It’s sure as hell not “American Idol,” or even the Iraq war. But next time a developer tries to build a Wal-Mart in what used to be your back yard, let me know if you feel the same.

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