Sunday, November 9, 2014

Zoning Changes - We Need a Better Process

You've probably heard Albert Einstein's definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.  One of the agenda items for Monday's council meeting reminds me of that - a zoning change has come before council, after following the usual process for consultation (send letters to residents living within a certain radius about the proposed change), and council chambers will be packed with residents demanding that we turn down this change.  And I won't be surprised if most council members bend to the will of the non-elected people in the room, and follow their wishes.  Applause will follow, the press will dutifully quote happy residents, who will laud those councillors that followed their wishes for understanding how democracy works, and disparage those councillors who had the temerity to make a different decision.

The zoning change in question?  A group home for five young girls is being proposed for a residence on Mahon Drive.  The young girls in question have not been in trouble with the law, but rather are in situations where they cannot live with their families, and are between the ages of thirteen and eighteen - high school girls.  At least one staff member is on site at all times, with two present in the evenings.

I've been receiving phone calls and emails about this since before it came to council.  The surface reason that is being presented is that such a home will be a traffic hazard, and there will be insufficient parking.  Never one to believe everything that people tell me, particularly when they are trying to tell me how I should vote, I went to check the area out.  The neighbourhood is relatively new - every house, including the one being proposed for the home, has a two car garage with a wide driveway.  Sufficient parking, especially for a home in which most of the residents will not have their own vehicles.  In fact, I would bet that most of the current homes have more vehicles than this residence would.  The street itself is not a major thoroughfare, but is a quiet crescent.  The police tell me that it is not an area with a history of traffic accidents.

I get the feeling that residents are talking about parking and traffic safety because those are socially acceptable concerns - they don't want to be accused of being one of the Not In My Back Yard types.  And when they hear the words "group home", they make the leap to half-way house, because they haven't been told anything else - they've been sent a letter - the least efficient form of communication.

I find these meetings where residents crowd council chambers to be an extremely poor way of discussing the issue, because absolutely no discussion takes place.  People with their minds already made up come to tell us what we should do, and either openly or implicitly suggest that if we don't vote their way, they won't vote our way in the next election.  The proponents also have the chance to present, but again, it's not an opportunity for discussion.  And council becomes the awkward guy in the middle, trying to sort out reality from rumour.

The insanity part comes in because this is how we deal with zoning changes - not productive, creates divisions on council and in the community, and decisions are made based on emotion, not fact.  And it's been this way the whole time that I've been on council - people have learned that the best way to get council on side for any proposed change is not to present with solid facts and arguments, but rather, fill council chambers with emotional people, either pro or con.

So, how would I do this differently?  Well, I think that when a proposal comes to administration that is going to require a zoning change, I would require that the proponent hold a public meeting to present their idea to the neighbourhood, well before it comes to council.  And this wouldn't just be for people within a certain radius; it should be widely advertised, so that anyone in the city, as well as members of council, could attend and ask questions.  That's the kind of venue where questions can be asked and answered, and potential issues could either be defused, or ameliorated.  If it was made clear at these meetings just how many extra vehicles were going to be in the neighbourhood, for example, then the argument that there won't be sufficient parking wouldn't be considered more than a red herring.

That way council could make its decision based on hard facts, questions would have been asked and answered, directly to and from the proponents, and council would get out of this middleman position that we've put ourselves into.  In fact, we'd be able to look at things from the perspective of how a change would affect the community as a whole, not just look at it from the viewpoint of a few residents.

And the emotion wouldn't detract from what should be our focus on Monday - public input on the draft budget, which is coming after the council meeting.  Now that's where we should be spending our time - listening to ideas about the budget, not listening to people who are worried about potential new neighbours.

"Somehow, our devils are never quite what we expect when we meet them face to face." - Nelson DeMille

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