Opinion: What Happened to Process?

Albemarle County planners last week quietly approved what they call a “minor” amendment to allow the construction of concrete block dugouts at Woodbrook Elementary School.

For those of you that are new to this story, the Carson Raymond Foundation, in conjunction with the Albemarle County School Board, will build two concrete block dugouts at Woodbrook School. Each structure is roughly the size of a two story building on its side. Woodbrook residents opposed the construction by a margin of roughly 3 to 1.

Woodbrook residents met with Foundation officials on four separate occasions, but were unable to come to an agreement on the design of the dugouts. At a meeting of the Albermarle County School board on July 8, 2010, board members voted 4 -1 in favor of the construction, despite the protests of 11 Woodbrook residents that spoke out against the project. Four residents supported it.

Usually, when a controversial project such as this one is proposed a process is launched in which all sides are heard by a disinterested third party. They then make the final decision on the development. But that didn’t happen this time.

“If someone wanted to give me a new car, for free, I’d vote for that too.”

Sure, the School Board held a public hearing, but are they a disinterested third party? Hardly. By approving the project, they get significant improvements on their property funded entirely by the private sector. Naturally, they have a strong bias toward approval. If someone wanted to give me a new car, for free, I’d vote for that too.

If your still not convinced that the school board had a vested interest in the outcome, consider this. In an email message, sent to hundreds of parents, school officials wrote, “There are currently a few members of the Woodbrook HOA who are opposed to dugouts because of fears of crime and diminished sight lines.” Their email goes on to say, “The Woodbrook HOA has been quite vocal and our concern is their volume will take precedence.” They might as well have said “Everyone come out and beat up the neighbors.” That’s hardly a “disinterested” third party. This misuse of publicly funded school facilities to rally support against a neighborhood begs an investigation of its own.

Prior to the meeting, 17 Woodbrook residents wrote school board members asking them to reconsider. As mentioned earlier, eleven opposed the development at the meeting itself. These numbers alone should have justified a public hearing by the Albemarle County Planning Commission.

And what about those four meetings with the Carson Raymond Foundation? While it’s true that Foundation officials were always courteous and respectful to Woodbrook residents, they had little or no real incentive to make meaningful concessions. They’re accountable only to their members.

“Fritz went ahead anyway and approved the project before the meeting date arrived.”

To be fair, on July 12th, and in an email message to this blog, county planning staff’s Chief of Current Development Bill Fritz said, “You may want to appear before the Board of Supervisors at their next meeting which is July 14th starting at 6 p.m. They have an item on their agenda called ‘Matters from the Public’. This is an opportunity to bring any issue to the Board’s attention. If the Board instructs [planning] staff not [to] act on this project administratively I would then process the application as I would a major project. The abutting owners could request Planning Commission review.” But that gave residents just two days to organize an appeal, an unreasonable expectation. Residents asked if they could have until August 4th to organize, the date of the Supervisor’s next meeting. It was a generous compromise considering that residents wishing to appear would have to take time off work to do so. But Fritz went ahead anyway and approved the project before the meeting date arrived.

“I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking ‘poor loser’.”

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “poor loser”. Not at all. When the Board of Supervisors last November reversed an earlier Planning Commission decision, I, along with several other residents wrote them. Here’s a portion of my letter:

“Personally, I support the concept of neighborhoods interconnected by footpaths and said so publicly at the Planning Commission hearing in June. You might think I would welcome the Board’s decision to widen and extend the Arden Place path. But instead I am deeply disappointed by its decision, a decision made largely without regard for the civic process that preceded it.”

Following the appeal, the Board of Supervisors had the good sense to call a public hearing and subsequently reversed its decision. The path I had supported was gone, but the people had been heard. That’s how a healthy society works.

Whether your “side” won or lost on this question is not the issue. The issue here is that the planning process failed us all. The freedom to speak and be fairly heard is at the heart of the democratic process itself.

This time we all lost.

One thought on “Opinion: What Happened to Process?

  1. There were several things about this process that bothered me. For one thing, there was absolutely no clarification about what types of games, frequency, etc. The Foundation had said on several occasions that they would just be using the dugouts for practices. They jumped from that to games and then Mr. Strucco said at the meeting that they could use it for Little League. There's a lot of difference in those usages in terms of safety equipment, noise, trash, traffic, parking, etc. But no one would discuss any of that. It became a purely emotional thing. I understand that Carson's death would bring up emotions, but you have to be able to leave emotions out of things when discussing usage, etc. The School Board was disgraceful in asking absolutely no questions and pretty much just saying anything goes.

    I have lost a lot of respect for the School Board after this. For one thing, one board member wrote that Woodbrook was like Hollymead and Baker Butler. This shows that the board member has no clue what the schools are like as those schools are very different from each other and not at all like Woodbrook. For another thing, I think this was decided before the meeting. The meeting was also poorly handled; you can't allow people to yell from the audience and continue to address them.

    It's also very much a concern that both the principal and the PTO sent out emails (with the school and the PTO info) telling people how to feel. If you agreed, you might not have seen a problem. However, these entities should be dissemanating information and not giving opinions on how you should vote. That is a very slippery and dangerous slope. What if they start throwing in political slants? That was a big red flag and no one did a thing about it. There is also some question as to whether the PTO gave addresses to others to use to bombard with pleas on how to vote. Regardless of how you feel about the dugouts this should be a concern.

    I don't like the fact that some people got so vitriolic about this. You can disagree and have a different opinion without demonizing people and getting downright ugly. People were trying to do the best they could with the information they had. Many of the people making the most noise had not been to a single meeting.

    Maybe everything will turn out fine with these dugouts. Maybe not. The problem is that once they are built there is little recourse for the residents of the neighborhood. It's pretty rididulous that the Albemarle County School Board wouldn't ask some questions and at least clarify usage and have some rules in place. And there really isn't much of ANYTHING that is completely maintenance free for 25 years. This process left much to be desired. The school board is not used to having to deal with this type of thing and it would have been better to have been heard by the planning commission; they would have asked questions and at least put some rules in place.

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