Communication, Controversy, and City Planning

Sometimes, good government and the Will of the People must part ways.

In the wake of the St. Charles City Council’s recent approval of Lexington Club, there is a renewed call for better communication on controversial developments. I’m a big believer in the necessity of critical conversations that seek to resolve misunderstanding and/or disagreement. For such conversations to be fruitful, it’s vitally important to identify conflicting base assumptions, especially as they pertain to the duties and responsibilities of government.

As I have argued before, land use regulations are legally predicated on the city’s power to police. The ethical basis for such interventions into private enterprise is the preservation and promotion of the Public Welfare—that is, the control of so-called neighborhood effects. As Milton Friedman opined in his classic treatise, Capitalism and Freedom (1962), such considerations “have been used to rationalize almost every conceivable intervention. It’s hard to know when neighborhood effects are sufficiently large to justify particular costs in overcoming them....”

For the record, I’m not a libertarian. I’m a liberal—and unapologetically so. But I do think that Friedman raises an important issue here. Government must be prudent in its use of regulation and vigilant against abuses of this power.

By and large, such considerations have been neglected by many community activists who implicitly demand that the city use its powers to enforce their own desires. It’s common to hear people declare that government must deliver what the residents want and not what developers want. As one activist recently commented, “the residents own (the) neighborhood and the developers need to come in and work with us.”

This is patently untrue. As a home owner, my property claims terminate at my property line. They certainly do not extend into my neighbor's property—even if that neighbor is an “out-of-town” corporation. Therefore, I should not expect land uses in my neighborhood to conform to my mere desires. Nor should I expect government to coerce property owners to do what I want—or even what the majority of residents want. What I can and should expect is for government to prevent land uses that are injurious to me, to my family, and to my neighborhood.

How we discern this is a vital question—and unfortunately beyond the scope of this essay. I believe that continuing conversations are key. One thing we must also recognize is the distinct possibility that a given land use proposal (and I'm talking in generalities here) will satisfy the needs of the Public Welfare yet stop short of satisfying the public.

In these cases, as odd as it sounds, government may in fact have an ethical responsibility to disappoint its constituents.

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Ted Schnell January 28, 2013 at 08:57 PM
I respect that Craig. I still think your knowledge about historic preservation would be worth blogging about, though -- as an individual involved in the process, you understand the complexities better than a lot of others. Further, you have experience doing renovations. I think it would be cool to write about that -- I'll probably never be able to find a historic home and renovate it, but I know people who have and I know the process can be complicated. Please, consider it. You don't have to write as a commission member -- just as someone who is intimately involved in the process, who has a passion for it.
Brian Doyle January 28, 2013 at 11:47 PM
David: Again, thank you for drawing the conversation back to the original premise. Let me first admit that I probably won't be able to provide conclusive answers to your questions. The issues surrounding Lexington Club are too complex to address in a forum like this. But, to start, I would quote your chairperson, Cindy Holler Larson, who stated at a joint meeting between the Housing Commission and the P&D Committee back in September that "Lexington has environmental problems... is a distressed property... (and) that sites that have conditions like that need to be taken into consideration." It's been my understanding that your commission determined that the benefits of remediating the environmental contamination on the Applied Composites site warranted the waiver of the city's affordable housing requirements. In fact, this played a big part in my own thinking about the developer's proposal. On density, we've already kicked that ball around a bit. I'm gratified that you affirm the validity of the 2007 CPA. I think that the density is in line with that document. Where there is variation is in the use of the front-facing garages. But few people were very concerned about that issue. As for the TIF, the extension of that funding is predicated on the proposition that Applied Composites would simply not be redeveloped without it. That was the finding of the group that studied the TIF. So, utlimately, your base question has to be answered in relation to another question....
Brian Doyle January 28, 2013 at 11:50 PM
(Continued) If Applied Composites were to remain in its current state indefinitely, would the community be better off? And, to the degree that public opposition is based primarly on the land use question (vs. the TIF), would the increased public good of the status quo be sufficiently large to justified restricting land use entitlements?
Brian Doyle January 29, 2013 at 01:35 PM
The pretext of this entire conversation is the allegation that government is not conducting itself appropriately and that the public is entitled to more dialog. The questions I have asked are focused on establishing the ground rules for such dialog. Who is the government? It's not just the Mayor and the City Council. You and I and David are also part of the government because we are appointed officials. In my opinion, we do not have the luxury of simply "changing our hats" and pretending that we are not part of the very system that we may be tempted to criticize. When I attach my title to my comments, it is in the interest of transparency. I have opinions like anyone else. My opinions play a role in the deliberations of the Plan Commission. If citizens have a right to responsive government (and I think they do), then it doesn't serve their interests for me to pretend that I can so easily compartmentalize my actions as a private resident and my actions as a commissioner. I disclose my role precisely so that people can challenge those assumptions that may influence my deliberations on items before the commission. In order to avoid any confusion, however, let me state plainly that my remarks do NOT represent those of the Plan Commission. Only a formal resolution of a quorum of the commission made at a properly noticed public meeting can represent the official position of the commission. I will be more diligent in attaching this disclaimer to my future public comments.
Craig Bobowiec January 29, 2013 at 08:07 PM
Brian, i respect your explanation here and where you state plainly your comments do not represent the Plan Commission that is right for you to do. I just think in the future on any of your blogs, articles, speeches you need to continue to clear that issue up at the very beginning, so everyone reading or listening can do so with the full understanding of where these comments come from. I guess you are correct in your describing your role as an appointment, personally I look at it as I am volunteering my time and giving back to my City. Appointment for me sounds too "formal" as I do give the Historic Commission my best but it's not that serious to me, more it's fun, and rewarding contributing to my City and to those that we educate and help with their projects. I just ask again, that if you choose to use my personal efforts in these other issues, do so as resident Craig Bobowiec. When I speak out trying to protect the better good of my neighborhood or City I am in no way doing so as a Historic Commissiom member. I am not nor are you or David in a "paid or elected" position with the City so I do disagree that we are not allowed to step out of our Commission hats when issues impact our personal lives. I guess we can agree to disagree on this. But when I walk out of my meetings, I become Craig Bobowiec human being and resident of St. Charles, although I do so with the respect that at times I do represent the City and conduct myself accordingly.


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