Sunday, March 3, 2013

Paradise Not Paved

On the day before Thanksgiving in 2005, I sat in the office of Jozus, Milardo, and Thomasson, one of the quaint looking law offices on Main Street in an old Colonial house with a white picket fence in front. For a few hours, I signed papers with my spouse at my side. At the end of the signature blitz, I walked away the proud owner of a 1,000-square foot house on the south end of High Street near Pike's Ravine by the corner of Beach Street. Later that night, I travelled to visit family for the holiday, and my husband stayed home and he and a friend spent Thanksgiving day ripping moldy shag pink carpet out of the entire house, bathroom and kitchen included. Liberty Bank was my mortgage lender, and also my neighbor. Their executive office building sits behind my house, and my house is bordered on two sides by their parking lot. My driveway is behind the house, and I get to it from an access road that has a shared right-of-way between the bank and the seven 1950s ranch houses along this stretch. It's an unusual set up for a residence.

When I outgrew the apartment where I lived on College Street for six years and decided to buy a house, I wanted a small house that would be easy to maintain, and sidewalks. I would not buy any house that didn't have a sidewalk in front of it, or that was too far to walk downtown. I wanted to remain in or near the downtown neighborhood, but I had no interest in renovating a house, becoming a landlord, or having extra space that I didn't need. There aren't too many small houses around this part of town, so when one became available, I jumped at the opportunity.

At the house closing, I learned that Liberty Bank had approached the previous homeowner about purchasing the property. The bank wanted to raze the house and expand their parking lot, but the application was denied by the Planning and Zoning Commission earlier that year by a very close divided vote. The denial stood despite the fact that a prior special exception had been approved and was on file. At that time, I wasn't in tune or involved with local politics or municipal happenings, and I didn't have any idea about this zoning application or the fact that it was debated during two public hearings. This became a unique part of the history of my property, and it was such an interesting and happy ending to the deal closing to be informed of this as the keys were handed to me.

This was a wonderful entree into the neighborhood. After we moved in, several neighbors made a point of stopping by to welcome us to the neighborhood and to tell us how relieved they were that the bank had not succeeded in their efforts. Not only would the bank have replaced a house with an asphalt parking lot, there was also speculation that the expansion of their frontage along High Street would have opened the door to adding a new curb cut and a driveway that would connect through to the rear access road. This would have impacted traffic. In addition to the thankful neighbors, we were also visited by the bank's friendly property manager who said “No hard feelings!” with absolute sincerity. He chatted with my husband, who tells me now that the property manager conceded that it was probably all for the best that the parking lot application was denied.

I never read the official record of this until now. I was able to find Planning and Zoning meeting minutes on I learned that many people who were strangers to me at the time, but are now my friends and neighbors, spoke in opposition to the parking lot expansion, notably one guy named Ed McQueen and alternately recognized as Ed McCune. (So much for accuracy in the public record. And I think it's kind of a well-known joke around town that nobody knows how to spell or pronounce Ed's last name, but McQueen is a new one). While this property is a mile away from Ed's back yard, he recognized and spoke out about a bad plan, as Ed is wont to do. Thanks to all the neighbors and activists whose voices were so important in keeping my house a part of the neighborhood I would join shortly thereafter, a Happy Thanksgiving indeed.

In the seven years I've lived here, I've never seen the bank's parking lot come anywhere close to maximum capacity of cars. I can't imagine what their rationale was or why they thought more parking was needed. The bank tried to justify their position with numbers – how many employees, how many parking spaces available. But while their numbers made sense on paper, they did not match the reality of the situation in the half-empty lot. And all those people who spoke out against it expressed valid reasons for why it would harm the area.

I bought my house knowing full well that it was on a main road, surrounded by a parking lot, and had a commercial building across the back yard. Residences and commercial properties can coexist peacefully as we do in my neighborhood. But when the perceived needs of one are pitted against another, things can get ugly.

Last week when so many people showed up at P&Z to decry the proposed MX zoning text change, Attorney Ralph Wilson made some concluding comments toward the end of the night and he said that the opposition is driven by fear. I suspect that back in 2005 when the bank parking lot was debated, the arguments might have been similar. Accusing residents of being afraid of change is just a way of hiding behind the fact that there is no good reason to be in favor of the proposed change. There is not one shred of fact-based evidence to suggest that the proposed MX zoning text change can bring any actual long-term benefit to the Middletown population as a whole. The parties in favor have not backed up their arguments with any substance of fact, study, analysis, or other documentation. Staff comments say “The proposed language could allow a higher quality of development than what exists now.” There is no substantiation of this claim, no explanation of what this means, or what is considered “high quality” development versus “low quality” development. This is a broad and unsubstantiated, irresponsible summary judgement.

This glaring error was recognized by neighbors, who of course are accused of NIMBY syndrome, but many of those opposed identified themselves saying they are not nearby residents but still felt compelled to speak out against this proposal. One of the neighbors, Jennifer Proto, obviously a skilled analyst with impressive credentials, masterfully picked apart any argument that the zoning change could bring any more financial benefit to the city than existing residences could.

Forty people spoke out against the proposed change, with many more opponents present who did not speak, while there was a glaring absence of anyone to speak in favor of it besides a few, most of whom have a vested interest. Attorney Wilson's last word tactic was to accuse opponents of being afraid of change. The very people he accused are the ones who have initiated and effected changes to the downtown neighborhood in the form of owner occupancy, rehabilitation, and revitalization. These are people who see potential, not in the form of dollars, but in the form of community. These are the people who walk everywhere they need to go, because Middletown is already walkable. The very people that Attorney Wilson accused of being afraid of change are the people who welcome new neighbors and build community every day. The very people that Attorney Wilson accused of being afraid of change are actually people who most embrace change. Change is a good thing, because the opposite of change is stagnation. But there is a big difference between fear of change and fact-based knowledge that a proposed change is a terrible idea. 


Susan Allison said...

Thank you Karen, for writing this and for protesting the MX zoning text change. Over 100 people were there to protest and many more would have been there if they could have. Thank goodness people saved your home. Thank goodness people take the time to protest bad ideas. Maybe we can save Middletown from this debacle!

Ed McQueen said...

Thanks for bringing back the memory of fighting Liberty Bank's blacktop desires.

Your point about fearmongering is well taken, especially from a lawyer who said that Centerplan needs to expand. They want to expand. But if they can't expand in Middletown they might have to make other plans.

I'd be happy if Centerplan took their ball and went home.

Ed McQueen

Anonymous said...

Speaking of fear- it was not right that those in favor as according to rules is how it is done for a reason, were told to speak last because others had "families" according to Ed McKeon. This prevented many from speaking in favor out of intimidation.

Ed McKeon said...

Anon 10:42

It was a strange and new set of rules that were set at the public hearing. Typically, members of the public, for or against, are not segregated into groups. So, we were all taken off guard when the chairman declared that those in favor would speak first, and those opposed, second.

Of course, that was reversed, and still odd, since I requested the first-come, first-served approach that is typically used.

Not sure who you were talking about in terms of intimidation - you, yourself? And how is it that you, or those known to you, might be intimidated by people with families?

I truly doubt there were many, beyond the five who spoke in favor of the change, who were actually going to speak.

I think you need to address your complaint to the P&Z. But I doubt they pay much attention to anonymous complaints with hypothetical tales of intimidation.

Maybe if you could name a person or two who was intimidated, or provide your own name.

My name is Ed, what's yours?

Anonymous said...

A well and feelingly stated piece, which brings to mind the adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix."

Who is clamoring that the current MX zone is broken?

Only those who stand to make a buck by the change.

I'm all for making an honest buck, but as the article says, where's the demonstrated need for the change in the law?

To the argument that the proposed change isn't big, one response is, even a small change should have some justification.

To the argument that opponents are afraid of change, one response is that the argument is ad hominem.

If the opponents were all axe murderers, it wouldn't mean a particular proposed change is justified.

I respect Mr. Wilson and the principals of his client Centerplan.

I see no evil in their attempt to run a business and make a profit within the law.

But they still have to make a positive, affirmative case for their particular proposal.

Saying "growth" and "moving forward" isn't a case.

All that is before you come to the case against it, which that it would set back the fragile but growing movement toward an ever more livable, walkable, residential downtown component.

That's growth, too.

Anonymous said...

To quote a former president, Ed - there you go again.