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E-M:/ Meridian Twp: Don't confuse me with the facts



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Enviro-Mich message from anne.woiwode@sfsierra.sierraclub.org
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Friends:

Last night the Meridian Twp. Planning Commission convened a "work session" to
discuss their proposal to either entirely eliminate the Twp's Urban Services
Boundary, or to extend the boundary to include the properties of four
developers.  As one commenter observed, here it is, August 23 on a Monday
night and there were close to 50 people in the audience concerned enough to
give up their whole evening to sit through another meeting on this topic.

This work session came about after 100 people showed up at the first hearing
on the proposals in late July, and the Planning Commission decided not to
stick to its timeline of voting on August 9.  A letter had been sent to the
25+ people who testified at that meeting asking them to submit questions to be
addressed at this work session.  In addition, in response to questions raised
at the August 9 meeting of the Planning Commission, members of the public were
assured that questions about facts would be clarified by the professional
staff of the Planning and Development Department so that a common set of
"facts" would be presented for consideration by both the Commission and the
public.  Unfortunately, the course of the meeting was drastically different
than this observer had been led to believe!

The Commission had arranged their agenda to deal with their regular meeting
prior to the work session beginning, to allow the work session on the USB to
go as late as needed.  While the start of the meeting was somewhat delayed, it
was not surprising under the circumstances.  But when the work session began,
instead of starting off with presentation of the public's questions and
informed answers from staff and other experts, the Commission Chair, Bob
Hotaling, asked Commissioners to comment on what they had heard and read to
date.  The chairman then proceeded to lay out his own view of the history of
planning in Meridian Twp, as someone who had served on the Planning Commission
almost continuously since its founding in the 1960's.  

While not factually accurate in a number of areas, Mr. Hotaling's monologue
gave a clearer picture as to how he views these issues and why. For example,
he explained that a general obligation bond issued in the early 1960's to pay
for sewers to be brought into the township extended for 30 years and all
residents in the Twp. paid for it, therefore all residents should have access
to the sewer.  Others say the bond was paid off in either the 70's or 80's
(apparently the Twp. doesn't have accurate records on this), and point out
that for a very long time extensions have been paid by the person or
developer benefitting from the extension. Based on this view, they say, there
is really no reason to claim it should be extended everywhere based on who
bore the cost of bringing the sewer into the township.  Mr.  Hotaling's line
of reasoning has been repeated by some of the Commissioners, even though it is
also observed by many that in effect this rationale calls for forcing sewer on
people who don't want it even if they paid for it.

The Commission comments and discussion unfortunately proceeded exactly the way
such a discussion will when based on opinion and assumptions as opposed to
facts and objective information: Commission members protected from accurate
information were asked to evolve their positions based on preconceptions and
without the complication of facts.  A few of the Commission members resisted
the temptation to commit, and stated that they were trying to remain
open-minded and to learn about this topic from all sources.  While this
approach provided for some philosophical discussions and presentation of
positions that opened some doors for additional discussion and (at least it
appeared) some room for convincing even the most strident advocate for
eliminating the boundary that a different approach was needed, it also led to
debate about facts and entrenchment on dubious bits of information, where
clarification and a common set of facts might have forced a substantive
discussion instead.

Among the promising parts of the discussion were comments by Commissioners
that additional zoning categories to provide for cluster zoning were needed
(even though the comments were made in a "they", meaning previous Planning
Commissions, had not followed through with the proposals in the Master Plan
for these tools), and that efforts should be made to protect green space and
quality of life in the part of the Twp within the USB. It is not clear how
well these comments will be borne out when the rubber meets the road, but
these comments did lead some of the public commenting later to reinforce such
sentiments, while noting these were not in conflict with keeping the USB.

When the Commission finally did get to considering the questions posed in
letters by the public, the Chairman chose to present the questions to the
Commission, NOT to the professional staff sitting in the room.  Needless to
say, the questions were "responded to" by Commission members with exactly the
same lack of connection with critical facts as had been evidenced in the first
section of the meeting.  To add insult to obfuscation, one question WAS
directed to the staff - to the Director of Public Works, who was asked to
answer a question on sewer and water capacity.  Not a single query was
presented to those paid by the Twp. to understand and implement the very laws
and concepts at the heart of the planning principles being discussed.

At a break, some private discussions ensued with the Chairman, pointing out
that this approach was contrary to what had been promised in previous
meetings and strongly implied in the letter sent to the public soliciting
questions.  It turns out staff were not even given some of the public's
questions until the morning of the meeting.  A promise was made by Chairman
Hotaling during the next portion of the meeting that responses from staff to
the requests for clarification and factual information would be made PRIOR to
the Commission voting on the proposals. 

After the break, the public was called to speak, and again it was impressive
just how many people had given up their summer evening and spent time
researching and pondering this issue so that their voice would be heard.  The
comments were, again, informed and insightful, even as some members of the
public noted that their neighbors thought it was a hopeless effort to try to
convince this group to keep the USB where it is. Many who spoke last night
were new -- they had NOT testified at the previous hearing.  Others were back
with additional comments and observations, and many of those had submitted
letters with questions that were not being answered.  

Several, including Eleanor Luecke, a long time proponent of slow growth in
Meridian Twp. and leader of the group LINC, extended olive branches to the
Commission, suggesting that a meaningful dialogue on this topic with the
public could well result in an outcome everyone would agree with.  Among
other suggestions were for the Commission to do a full revisitation of the
Master Plan, due at this time anyway, instead of taking one part out of
context. Some still stated their deep frustration with what they believe was a
done deal in terms of the decision.  Some who spoke have lived in the township
for many decades, others were more recent residents, but again not a soul
supported the proposals to either eliminate or extend the USB. Some submitted
information from other communities about the success and benefit of USB's or
comparable tools, pointing to a variety of indicators, including property
values, that argued for this type of control.

The work session ended at 11:15 after the last member of the public spoke.  No
details on the next meeting or step were spelled out at the end of the
meeting.

I want to thank those people who have been following this story in Meridian
Twp., and I know that comments and letters have come from many of you to the
Commission.  This may be an issue that is determined in part by attrition --
sometimes it is easier to simply drag a process out until the opponents of a
proposal like this have lost the energy to attend more and more meetings. If
so, it will be critical not to lose the momentum that has built this summer on
this topic.

However, as was pointed out by some who spoke, one of the developer's parcels
proposed for inclusion in the USB is up for consideration by the Commission in
September -- it was observed that it seems unlikely they will be able to delay
indefinitely deciding this issue because the project is intimately linked to
the USB issue.  So stay tuned!

Anne Woiwode



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