Tuesday, July 19, 2005

How to Get the Issues Out in Referenda?

I hate to say I told you so, but...

A couple of stories in today's Salt Lake Tribune underscore some of the problems with conducting planning and land use regulation by referenda.

The first story is about the upcoming referedum in Sandy, now that the Utah Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Save Our Community group. The vote is beginning to be cast as Davis vs. Goliath -- a citizens group against Wal-Mart and Lowe's and big retail developers. Money and perceptions (vs. reality) often play the leads in such match-ups.

The story asks, "will the mega-companies overtly campaign for the project leading up to the referendum?

"Last year, Wal-Mart pumped $2 million into two California campaigns. It lost a referendum for a superstore in the south but prevailed in the north.

"Ulitmately, even if the big companies pour big dollars into Sandy's referendum, Save Our Community leaders remain confident. 'I have to come back to my still-naive belief that money doesn't win elections [or] referendums,' Long says."

Naive is right. And, unfortunately, I think that's often how issues are played out in such referenda. "Of particular concern is the park. When the debate flared, a number of residents argued the land should be used as a park, and lawn signs dotted the community advocating for a 'park, not a parking lot.' City officials noted that they didn't have the $40 million it would take to buy the parcel. ... Now, they fear voters will go to the polls believing they are choosing between a park and a Wal-Mart."

And the press has gotten it wrong, contributing to the misperception. They have been calling the action the Sandy City Council undertook a "rezone," when in reality what they did was amend the text of the ordinance for the zone already in place for the gravel pit to allow for retail. Under current zoning, the property owner could proceed with apartments, hotels, office buildings and schools. The Trib story does get that part right, but again called it a "rezone."

So how easy is it to explain all these issues to the public and hope they understand before the head for the polls?

The second Trib story concerns the continuing efforts by the Riverton United citizens group to get their Wal-Mart rezone on the ballot. The story notes, "A Utah Supreme Court decision has revivied the [referendum] isssue. Earlier this month, the court unanimously ruled that Sandy City must allow a referendum on a 100-acre development -- this one also involves a Wal-Mart -- within its boundaries. ... The decision 'absolutely crystallizes [that] the referendum statute is to be interpreted liberally in favor of the right to vote,'" said Riverton United attorney James Tracy.

By the way, Riverton United has a website at www.rivertonunited.org

I told you so.


At 12:01 PM, Blogger ARCritic said...

Davis vs Goliath? Do you feel a little put upon? jk.

It is interesting that the Sandy issue and the Riverton issue both come down to the "Zoning for Dollars" debate.

The city council in both instances went against significant public opposition (more than what I believe could reasonably be called "public clamor") to attempt to accomodate big box stores mostly for their sales tax revenue.

In both cases the councils should have put much more time, effort and money into educating the public before hand so that they had enough support to effectively cast the public opposition that was left as a bunch of NIMBY radicals. But they didn't, they had the power and went ahead with what they wanted or as I believe in the Riverton case what they believed they had to do legally.

I agree with you that planning and zoning by referendum is bad public policy, but the arrogance that most councils seem to project is in my opinion even worse.

Maybe it takes 6 more months and 6 or so town meetings and numerous mailings to debate the issues and get the information that will persuade the public that this is the right thing. But just because it might be hard to do, doesn't mean that councils shouldn't do it.

I ran a referendum petition and while it wasn't planning and zoning related it dealt with this same issue of taking the time to explain to the public and get them on board. And I truly believe that if councils will take that time when they see significant opposition, they will greatly enhance their ability to either thwart the petition or withstand the vote. And then if they fail then perhapse they were not doing the will of the people to begin with.

At 12:51 PM, Blogger Wilf said...

Good comments, arcritic. You are absolutely right on, I think, our planning commissions and councils need to spend more time on public involvement and input.

Sometimes, though, it seems you put a lot of effort into getting public involvement, trying to cry out to let people know an important issue is being discussed. No one shows.

Then when the action is actually implemented, everyone comes out of the woodwork! How to avoid that?

At 3:39 PM, Blogger ARCritic said...

Yeah, thats the rub. I know that in our case the council held a public hearing for the ordinance and 75 - 100 people showed up with not one person in favor of it. The council took the input that was gathered and used that to modify the ordinance in ways they claimed the people wanted it. Problem was the people didn't want it because they had yet to understand it.

As for planning, unfornunately the public often doesn't become aware until it has been reviewed and passed by the planning commission and is sitting in front of the council for action. I would suspect that very seldom will a referendum happen if the outcry doesn't happen until after the council acts.

I think the new law passed by the legislature that requires the public hearing at the planning commission level rather than the council level is good in theory but less attention is paid to the planning commission than the council. So I thing that in practice this new law will simply eliminate more public input rather than encourage more input.


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