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Keeping Citizens at Arm’s Length

March 6, 2013 by Andrea Gaines filed under Columns, View From the Ridge 1 Comment

Purcellville, arguably the single most powerful governmental force in western Loudoun, has made significant changes in the way it makes decisions on the major development and zoning issues of the day, including decisions relating to annexations and the town’s comprehensive plan.

In earlier times, the developer for a particular project would present his or her idea to a town committee tasked with reviewing the developer’s plan. Important committees included Infrastructure and Ways and Means, recently disbanded by the town. Once in committee, key documents and ideas would be shared with citizens in open meetings on the specific proposal. Citizens could also follow the issue as it made its way through the decision making process – by attending future committee meetings, accessing minutes from meetings, following press reports, and reviewing documents put forth by the developer.

As the process was drawing to a close, citizens would have been involved in all stages of the town›s decision-making process, all the way through Planning Commission deliberations and the ultimate vote by the Town Council. And, their input would have been meaningful.

Today, under the guise of “streamlining” and “saving taxpayers money” developer proposals enter the process at the staff level of various town departments (such as Economic Development), effectively bypassing the open and deliberative process characteristic of the committee system. Various committees track the proposal made by the developer, but, often, that amounts to nothing more than a one-line summary or staff report on where the proposal is at any one time, and does not include any input from the public or any level of detail – unless a citizen went to the trouble and expense of submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

This is exactly what has been happening to the proposal for the 176 unit (and up to 205) Catoctin Creek Apartments. In this case, a one-line reference to the project, in committee, was picked up by the Blue Ridge Leader. Our newspaper submitted a FOIA request for documents related to the project, and, miraculously … approximately four days later documents related to the project appeared on the town website. These documents included …the comprehensive plan amendment and zoning amendment.

The Catoctin Creek Apartments development is the largest residential development proposal to come before the town council in over six years. This application is 176 (and up to 205) units of one, two and three bedroom apartments, approximately the size of the Locust Grove development.

There is significant concern about the size and scope of this apartment complex. Yet, if not for the FOIA request citizens – including the project’s closest neighbors – would have been hard pressed to understand what was happening at the staff level and where the Town Council was in their decision-making process. As it is, the town will vote on this project shortly, and, some say, quietly – without real meaningful citizen participation in the process.

The effect of all of this is that the town holds citizens at arms length – ostensibly inviting public comment, but actually making meaningful public participation really difficult. Once a month town council work session meetings, open to the public, were intended to replace the public sessions once managed by the Infrastructure and Ways and Means Committees. But, the town has cancelled three work session in recent months – once-a-month meetings, open to the public, that let citizens in on the nitty-gritty of how small town government works.

The town council also votes on major projects on the same night as the formal public hearing, rather than stepping back, carefully taking stock of what everyone has to say, and making a final decision at the appropriate time. As former councilwoman Beverly MacDonald Chaisson recently commented, Purcellville is one of the few localities that casts their vote up or down on the same night as the public hearing. Citizens are allowed to speak their piece … but only at the last minute. Most localities wait a month after the public hearing to give consideration to the public comment before casting their final vote.  Not to delay the process, but to carefully make sure all points of view are understood and applied.

Citizen participation is critical to a democracy.  And, there is no more effective way to effect participation as a citizen than by attending the town hall meetings and committee deliberations that occur in every small town.  In a fast-growing town like Purcellville, the increasing number of changes impact more and more citizens and in more and more drastic ways.  But, if small towns in transition are abandoned to special interests they will all go the way Purcellville is going.  They will become another Anywhere, USA, and that means so many of the places that the shifting population would love to live in will become unrecognizable.  The town you or your neighbor might have loved to move into will have been transformed through the indifference of its population, to a place you or they no longer want to live.  It can happen surprisingly fast.

In “streamlining” the process of how the town goes about making it’s decisions – sending the deliberations to the staff level and out of the purview of the public, where the only people in the room are often the developer and town staff – the town is keeping the public at arms length and grinding democracy into the ground.

Two recent comments by councilwoman Joan Lehr and Mayor Robert Lazaro – with Ms. Lehr urging citizens to stick to the town’s “processes and procedures” and Mr. Lazaro saying: “I’ve seen an email that this was a done deal. I’ve seen another email that says we’re going into secret sessions …” highlight the gap between what due diligence to democracy means to many citizens and what it means to the town. Because, while the mayor and select members of the town council see nothing wrong with how they do things, and even seem to be saying opponents are spreading false rumors about their procedures, there is a tremendous amount of discontent out there. Citizens really do fell left out of the process. Held at arms length as decisions are being made.

1 comment

  1. P'Ville Resident says:

    Wear RED to March12th’s Town Council Meeting to show our Town Leaders that they speak for residents, not developers!!

    Purcellville doesn’t NEED Apartments!!

    Get the facts! http://tinyurl.com/bhob5pg

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