Public Input 101–FAIL

The new Mixed-Use Zone legislation’s progress has slowed down somewhat and M-NCPPC has heard from enough people about the lack of public input, that hey, they decided to do more! During the last week of school and on a Monday night, yippee! Hopefully you have received this postcard inviting you to a meeting next Monday, June 15 7-9 pm. It’s also on the M-NCPPC site’s google-y calendar. However, the project’s schedule does not include this meeting nor a press release been issued or posted. No email to the gazillions of addresses they have collected.

This sort of half-hearted, last minute effort is why people remain skeptical of a wide range of Park & Planning efforts. Their outreach attempts are perceived as less than sincere and undercut promising initiatives. The M-NCPPC public affairs department should provide early guidance to planning staff in these matters and adjust outreach efforts–and work flow–as necessary. Council staff learned of this Monday. First-class postcards landed Tuesday. Six days notice is really not defensible–30 days is the minimum.

Municipalities’ involvement in this process has been sketchy at best, so a meeting has also been added for mayors and council members. But, gee whiz, all those impacted towns could have included this meeting in newsletters, cable access announcements, town council meetings and let their residents know.

The new Mixed Use Zone proposed is a version of Form-Based Code. This type of code is not inherently bad by any means; however, it has usually been used in specific neighborhoods, towns or cities–rather than county-wide. Typically, it involves an extensive community visioning process, charrette and hopefully results in a community-driven form-based code.

The county’s desire to simplify our development review process is understandable. But the big concern is that the public input process, the key to a successful buy-in from the impacted communities, appears to have been faulty from the start.

Note that our current conventional zoning process is not set aside, but exists in tandem with this new Mixed Use Zone based on Form-Based Code. This could create conflicts. There will be three or four types of mixed-use zones in place: the new Route 1 Sector Plan will use SmartCode (an open source form-based code planning system by one of its leading proponents), the proposed Mixed-Use Zone, the Mixed-Use Town Centers and “Town Center in a Box” packages for developments like Konterra.

Let’s really simplify and philosophically unite the huge and odd compendium of county code. Theoretically, you do this through a community visioning process, kind of like the stalled EnVision Prince George’s. Let’s take time to get it right. We agree with the points made recently by the Sierra Club:

Prince Georgians deserve cutting edge development where we can work, live, and shop, especially near Metro stops. But the design will be satisfactory only if we the people still have a say in what goes where. Yet reading of M-NCPPC’s draft bill raises many questions, such as:
-The newly greased approval pipeline removes the opportunity for residents to express their opinion on the shape of mega-developments.
-The bill transfers the review and approval of site plans from our elected representatives and the Planning Board to planning staff.
-This new MUZ legislation does not encourage or mandate that these large developments be located at or near transit centers, where they would be most successful. Potentially all 26 designated centers and 7 corridors would be eligible for fast-tracked, large developments—whether they are appropriate for the surrounding communities or not. See the General Plan on the concept of mixed use.
-Significant modifications to the site plan can be granted by the Planning Director after site plan approval. Once a site plan is approved (without public input or review by elected officials), deviations of up to 10% for building height, architectural materials, and parking spaces can be granted—again by planning staff.

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Filed under Cities and Towns, Community, Growth, Planning, Planning Board, Public Input

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