Tuesday, September 30, 2008

No wonder democracy is a hard sell...

Given the events of the last few weeks, I'm beginning to understand why some countries still resist democracy: our financial system is self-destructing thanks to greed and irresponsibility, our Congress is bickering like bratty children in the backseat of a car only 1/2 an hour into a 12 hour vacation drive, and residents sat through yet another 2 hour meeting on the proposed Army base in Middletown.

OK, maybe the last thing on my list doesn't fully compare with the first two, but I will admit that the process of democracy is challenging, tiring and frustrating. The complete transcript of tonight's meeting should be available in about ten days on the Army COE's website. (Check here.) Here's some general comments about how that went:

Deputy District Commander, David Dale, opened the meeting with a review of the project timeline. The public comment period for the 4 site finalists (Cucia Park, Bysiewicz Industrial Park, Ken Dooley/Boardman Lane, Mile Lane) ended today. The Army will rank these four sites in order of preference to create a Site Identification Report that will be forwarded for approval by 17 October. By October 30th, this list of sites will be approved, and the NEPA process will begin for each site. In early November, the Army will release the site rank order, but this preference listing doesn't mean that the #1 site on the list has been chosen at that time. By March 2009, the contract will be ready for advertisement, with the contract award happening by June 2009. Occupancy is expected by March 2011.

This timeline didn't spell out specifically the actual date by which the final choice will be made, so that detail remains unknown for now, and that's the source of my frustration. But, I'll get to that in a minute...

The comment portion of the meeting was to gather any missed information the Army didn't receive via its blog. The Army's summary of the key comments posted on the blog for each site:

Bysiewicz Industrial Park:
  • Loss of tax revenue for the city
  • concern over wetlands
  • increased traffic
  • approved industrial development
  • strain on local utilities
  • site has been cleared

Cucia Park:

  • Loss of park, open space, wildlife habitat
  • no loss of tax revenue
  • zoned industrial, surrounded by industrial use
  • good access to 91
  • revenue to City for sale of property
  • public support
  • impact on neighborhood

Ken Dooley/Boardman Lane:

  • loss of tax revenue
  • wetlands
  • increased traffic on residential streets
  • blasting
  • strain on utilities
  • City Resolution
  • public opposition
  • zoned industrial

Mile Lane:

  • Government owned
  • no tax loss
  • contaminated site
  • increased traffic
  • near schools/residences
  • city has interest in redevelopment

After this basic summary of the feedback each site has received, residents were able to comment on each site. These comments were videotaped and also annotated by a court reporter for inclusion in the official record.

The only comment on the Bysiewicz Industrial Park was from the owner of the brick home that would be surrounded on 3 sides by the base: he will offer his home for sale to the Army should this site be chosen. (This house would make a stately home for the Base Commanding Officer, so I recommend that he hold out for top dollar should it come to that...)

Several residents from Smith Street and the Westlake area made surprisingly strong comments AGAINST the use of Cucia Park. Most of the comments referenced how nice the park used to be and chided the city for not taking care of it. Councilman Klattenberg clarified that Cucia Park is actually about 4.4 acres contiguous to about 36 acres of abandoned industrial land (a former brick yard). The Mayor's Advisory Panel already inquired about preserving public access to the pond, and the Army has promised to take that under consideration.

Stephen Devoto, on behalf of the Westfield Residents Association, spoke specifically about the 3 possible sites that are in Westfield (KD/Boardman Lane, Bysiewicz Industrial Park, and Cucia Park). Ranking Cucia Park as the best choice, Devoto stated that the WRA is not thrilled about the city selling a park. However, given the extreme circumstances (and the fact that the Army SHOULDN'T be looking for land in Middletown ever again) the use of Cucia Park brings the most benefit to the city with the least amount of harm to residential neighborhoods. Devoto also commented that WRA's passionate involvement in the site selection process doesn't come from NIMBY (not in my backyard) concerns: rather, the passion comes from the abundance of analysis that the WRA has conducted since June, and the conviction that IF the Army has to build in Middletown, it should value above all else what the town thinks is the best site.

Mayor Guiliano spoke plainly and simply about the KD/Boardman Lane and Cucia Park sites. He asked the audience to consider for a moment that a private developer had submitted the Army's plans: in the case of Boardman Lane, the Mayor was "pretty confident" that those plans would be denied, just as he was confident that the same plans for Cucia Park would be approved. Guiliano told the Army to keep in mind that the Boardman Lane/KD site asked the city to accept something it wouldn't accept from any private entity. (Way to go, Mayor!!!)

After other comments on public safety issues, traffic concerns, and the danger of a schedule determining the sites available for consideration, Councilman Klattenberg mentioned that the Common Council will be taking up a resolution at its next meeting (Monday, October 6th) that endorses the use of Cucia Park and directs the City's Economic Development Commission to begin the process to dispose of the property as necessary. The Councilman also compared the Army's "open and collaborative" process to a funny joke about a neighbor listening to a husband and wife argue. At a point late in the evening, the arguing suddenly stopped, and when the neighbor later asked the wife what happened, she replied that her husband had agreed to a compromise: he agreed with her position.

That's where I'm at. I'm ready for the Army to catch a clue and to agree with the town's position on Cucia Park. David Dale's response to Councilman Klattneberg's comments was a polite "thank you for your comments" response, but I really wanted a simple "Yes, Dear." Of course I understand why he couldn't say that, but I'm ready to move on to other things (like maybe the bus issue and how the Board of Education has rocks for brains when it comes to imagining what parents are going through because of the new busing policy...oh, wait, that's something for another time...).

A brief on-the-way-out-the-door conversation with the Army's architect enlightened my suffering in a way I hadn't considered before. Until the NEPA process kicks in for the 4 sites (that's about the beginning of November), the Army is only about cost, engineering considerations and site availability. The public passion for or against a particular site doesn't come to bear on the decision making process UNTIL the NEPA considerations are factored in.

Wait for it...yes...read those two sentences again...yes, I can see the light bulb turning on above your head. If all the public comments for or against a specific side aren't evaluated and factored into the selection process until NOVEMBER at the earliest, what on earth have we been doing for the last 3 months? I was assured that the public comments made on the blog and recorded during tonight's meeting are now part of the official "stuff" that will be looked at during the NEPA review, so yeah for everyone who took the time to give their opinions. However, I was under the impression that since so many of us (elected officials too) have been saying the same thing for so long, that the sustained and vigorous protest against the Boardman Lane site (no matter how you access it) would have affected the narrowing process that whittled 16 sites down to 4. But no. I was wrong. The only factors that appear to have caused properties to fall out of contention were cost-related - both time and money. A perfect site may have been dropped because it was too costly to develop or because it would take to long to figure out how to develop it. Meanwhile, a perfectly horrible site is preserved just because guestimated engineering costs fall within the allowed budget.

Yes, I do understand this is the real world, and that the ideal isn't always possible. However, as the presidential candidates keep reminding us, Main Street is supposed to matter. We the people gave our government the power it needs to function, we the people pay for that functioning, and we the people ought to BENEFIT from that functioning. Abraham Lincoln said that the "legitimate object of governments is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all or cannot, so well do for themselves - in their separate and individual capacities." As a nation, we've agreed to separate that doing into local, state and federal responsibilities, and I don't think anyone is challenging the basic need for an Army Reserve Training Center. But in THIS case, THIS community of people CAN decide what needs to be done, and the federal government ought to take heed. Our federal tax dollars will pay for this new facility, and how rude it will be to suffer a site chosen despite strong and sustained resident and local elected officials' opposition.

So, the end really isn't the end yet. The public comment period for the site selection list is closed, but we learned tonight that what REALLY counts is the 30 day public comment period on the NEPA process/results. That won't start until at least November. Right. See what I mean about tiring and exhausting? Just as Christmas is approaching, and I'm betting that this holiday season will be hard for a lot of families, we still won't have resolved the issue of where this base is supposed to go. Maybe I'll start on an updated version of the Grinch who stole Christmas...

1 comment:

Judy Konopka said...

Thanks for the update. This blog is awesome.