Gazette Guest Column: “Give residents a role in city issues”

In today’s Gazette, Northampton resident Stephen Dashef urges officials to obtain citizen input early in the decision-making process:

Since most people are not experienced or comfortable with public speaking in front of large groups, the mode of reaching out and obtaining information could include interviews, written answers to questionnaires, e-mail, or some combination of these approaches…

When changing zoning ordinances so that development can occur in established neighborhoods there is a conflict between whether primacy is given to the quality of life of the residents who live there or to the wishes of other city residents who want more housing options and to developers who want to generate more business…

For there to be sustainable citizen invovlement in the future of Northampton, input on issues of consequence to the lives of our residents needs to be both actively solicited and facilitated so that critically important opinions are not coming in a delayed, after-the-fact manner, where the opportunity for true discussion has then been missed.

See also:

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences
…submit written comments to the Planning Board until the close of business on Thursday, November 29, 2007. Written comments should be sent to Planning Board, Office of Planning & Development, City Hall, 210 Main Street, Northampton, MA 01060.

Comments may also be emailed by the close of business on Thursday, November 29, 2007 to:

Click on the links below for an electronic copy of the Plan and the proposed Land Use Map:
October 19 Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan (PDF)
Proposed Future Land Use Map (PDF)

The plan has the potential to transform the look and feel of the most built-up 15% of Northampton, roughly the same area affected by the newly implemented 10-foot wetlands buffer zones. It prioritizes compact growth. Homebuilders are to be encouraged to build within walking distance of existing urban centers, where substantial infrastructure already exists. This sounds reasonable, but it must be carefully managed to avoid harming the interests of existing residents.

Gazette Lead Editorial: “A public role in planning”
While the Planning Board’s options are limited statutorily, in our opinion there needs to be a way for the board to garner public opinion earlier in the process and work with developers sooner to address design concerns…

…Northampton would benefit from a review of its planning process – with a particular eye on its public notification efforts to ensure that the public is involved early in the process.

The city also needs to take another look at the use of special permits issued by the Planning Board, which essentially guarantee that developers will be able to proceed with their projects even before site plans are approved. A special permit was issued for the Hilton, as it was for developers of the former Northampton State Hospital grounds. It has been suggested that, by issuing a special permit early in the process, the board diminishes its ability to shape the design of a development.

Fran Volkmann: Planning Board Needs to Consider Proposals in their Broader Context
At its meeting on Thursday night, the Planning Board addressed only a few of the many “tree” questions and essentially no “forest” questions…

…At no time did it address a single idea, question, or item of information submitted to it in an extensive set of letters and public comment.

The quality of decision-making on the board may well be the single most important determiner of the quality of major projects such as this hotel. The way the board reaches decisions also influences in important ways the level of acceptance of projects by the community. And, not least over the long run, the board’s approach to decision-making determines the level of trust and confidence that the public has in the board and in the Planning Department that guides its work.

Letter to The Republican: “planners and most board members are out of touch with the city’s residents”

Letter to Gazette: Planning Board too lax with Developers
In the case of the proposed Beaverbrook Estates project here in Leeds…citizens have repeatedly expressed profound unease about the project’s impact on the environment, traffic, pedestrian safety, water pressure, and storm water drainage… Rather than contend with these issues directly, the Planning Board has repeatedly followed the Office of Planning and Development’s staff recommendations and granted the applicant multiple waivers to state and local regulations. Waivers should only be granted if the project is in the public good, and this has hardly been demonstrated. In the end, narrow private interests seem to trump the greater good.

Berkeley, California: Cautions on Infill
Citizen input into long-range planning is excellent—which is why citizens are so astonished when their plans are entirely ignored by the current Planning Division. Developers sometimes work successfully with neighbors to create good and popular developments, but a long list of appeals, lawsuits, and despised large developments indicates a major problem. Staff routinely stonewalls, obfuscates, refuses to respond, and ignores neighborhood concerns. In contradiction to our own ordinances, staff makes no genuine attempt to facilitate cooperation between applicants and neighbors. Instead, propelled by their simplistic “smart growth” philosophy, staff encourages developers to build the largest possible projects over neighborhood objections…

We cannot let planners and developers decide what we will do with our lives. I never hear planners discussing psychological health and cultural values. Planners have a different approach. As one Berkeley planner told me, no matter what they build, eventually those who can or must tolerate the new, worse environment will replace those who can’t. As this happens, resistance to further degradation lessens. But I reject this “race to the bottom.” And with enough time, planners and developers could also train Americans to live like drones in anthills—but why let them?