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Time to catch my breath?

Lately I feel like the airport is my second home, but I may finally be getting a chance to catch my breath after my most recent trip, to the National League of Cities meeting in Phoenix. I returned home with my bags stuffed with handouts and new knowledge and ideas on topics including managing and using social media in local government, possible ways for Oak Ridge to implement the repair of sewer laterals that fail smoke tests (something that will soon be a big deal here) and help residents prepare for future problems with their laterals, ingredients for successful “green” initiatives (more difficult here than in some other regions of the country), how other cities house their community centers to serve youth and seniors, and “much much more.”

City Council meets Monday evening with a full agenda. I expect that many agenda items will be uncontroversial, but several will generate discussion, and there are a few items that I will either oppose or seek to amend:

1. Local Oversight Committee. I believe that regional cooperation is vital for dealing with matters like the challenges our region faces as the host of Department of Energy nuclear facilities, legacy contamination, and the radioactive waste industry that has come here because of DOE. However, I don’t like the proposal to discard the 20-year-old Local Oversight Committee and start all over again with a vague plan for a committee of regional mayors (ironically, the same type of group that set up the Local Oversight Committee in the first place).

The LOC was established to provide technical resources to help the region’s communities with the particular challenges of DOE environmental cleanup and waste management activities. Because these technical matters are outside the expertise and interest of most local governments, technical resources (funded from federal coffers) have been thought necessary to help governments and communities deal effectively with these challenges. The LOC employs a technically qualified professional executive director who works with the organization board of directors (nominally consisting of mayors and chairs of some technical advisory boards) and volunteers on the LOC Citizen Advisory Panel to stay abreast of current developments, determine how situations affect the region’s communities and local governments, and communicate on various matters to local, state, and federal entities and the public. Now several mayors (including Tom Beehan) want to scrap the LOC in favor of a new, apparently politically oriented, entity to be directed solely by mayors.

Whatever shortcomings the LOC has had in recent years are attributable in large part to a resounding lack of interest by the mayors who have nominally been members of the LOC board of directors but chose not to participate — and in several cases (notably, Knox County) did not even bother to designate alternates to serve on their behalf. With little participation from elected officials, it sometimes was difficult for the LOC to stay focused on local government priorities. The mayors’ demonstrated lack of interest in the organization and its functions is not a good omen for the success of their plan to trash the LOC and start all over again. (The mayors have not suddenly developed interest and expertise in technical matters.)

After hearing from citizens about the unique value of the LOC (largely at the September 9th special meeting of the LOC board), including being told by four former chairmen of the Oak Ridge Reservation Site Specific Advisory Board that the SSAB is not a substitute for the LOC, I foolishly thought the mayors recognized that the political damage they would suffer from trashing the LOC — including firing the various citizens who have volunteered their efforts and expertise as board alternates and advisory board members — outweighs the value of any money they could get out of that action. Foolish of me. Now Oak Ridge City Council and several regional county commissions are being asked to sign on to an “interlocal agreement” (effectively a contract) that gives little indication of the purpose and direction of the proposed new entity, beyond saying the mayors will be in charge.

The proposed interlocal agreement is said to be patterned after the charter for the Hanford Communities (see page 21 of this package),  considered by other local governments to be a successful model of regional cooperation among DOE communities, and one that is well-integrated with local government.  The fact that the Hanford Communities organization is well-integrated with local government could be explained in large part by the fact that it is financed  by membership dues from member governments, in contrast with the Oak Ridge LOC, which is funded with federal cleanup money. Accordingly, it makes sense that the agreement under which the Hanford group operates is structured as the charter for a membership organization, but it does not make sense to have copied those elements for the structure of the proposed East Tennessee entity. I also note that the Hanford agreement has many details regarding the purposes and functions of the organization that were not copied into the proposed interlocal agreement for East Tennessee.

I’d like to support continued regional cooperation, but I can’t endorse an “interlocal agreement” that contains little more substance that the statement that the mayors of several entities “desire to meet on a regular basis.”

2. “Not in Our City”. This is a package of ideas and initiatives that our city needs. Still, the proposed program of inspection of residential units before the utilities are turned on, which is a major element of this package, needs to be implemented very carefully to ensure that the city does not act “arbitrarily and capriciously” against the interest of any property owner.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines proposed to be used for this inspection program is long and detailed, and it includes a number of vague or subjective items.  Until the guidelines are tightened up to make them both unambiguous and easier to understand, I am not convinced that this new program is ready to implement, even on a trial basis (as staff proposes). I also have some reservations about the “sewer laterals” element of the inspection, which is a whole ‘nother story.

3. What is “Fast Food”? Staff is proposing a new definition for “fast food” in order to allow “fast casual” restaurants with drive-up service, but not “fast food” restaurants, in the Woodland Center Planned Unit Development. I’m all for the concept, but it appears to me that the staff’s proposed new definition — based largely on restaurant size —  would exclude some small non-fast restaurants (such as Homeland Cafe, Razzleberry’s, and Connie’s Natural Gourmet) by calling them “fast food,” while potentially allowing other businesses with drive-through operations that might not be kind to the adjacent residential neighborhood. I think this proposal should be vetted by the Planning Commission before Council votes on it at first reading, rather than after.  In the meantime, I will ask for more details on the proposed wording changes (the package provided to Council lacks some needed context) .

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Chickens or not?

Following up to my earlier post on chickens… Today’s Oak Ridger reports that the 5 Planning Commission members who attended last week’s work session were negative about the idea of allowing chickens in residential neighborhoods.  I wasn’t able to attend the meeting and I haven’t yet seen what staff presented to them. However,  I do know that there was no advance publicity of the meeting’s topic (unless you count this blog) so there may have been no interested citizens at the meeting,  and it’s apparent from the article that staff presented the idea in negative terms (saying it was  supported by only a “handful of people” and raising concerns about the workload for enforcement and licensing and permitting).

If chickens are going to come to Oak Ridge to roost or lay eggs, people with interest and knowledge of chicken-rearing are going to have to sit down for a two-way discussion with the planning commissioners and staff. The newspaper says the topic will be addressed by the full Planning Commission at its February 25th meeting (5:30 pm in the City courtroom); based on what I know of the subject and what I read in the newspaper reports, I think it’s premature for the Commission to take any final action on this.

Follow-up (written on Wednesday): Community Development staff provided me with a copy of the written material provided to the committee; it included copies of the text of a couple of e-mails I had received from citizens. Staff say that there were several interested citizens at the meeting. It appears that discussion at the meeting dealt mainly with broad concepts.

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Chickens ‘R Us?

Chickens were the main topic in the waning minutes of Monday evening’s City Council meeting. There’s been public interest in allowing backyard poultry-keeping (mostly for eggs — and in support of sustainability, the locavore lifestyle, and connecting kids with “nature”). Oak Ridge’s zoning ordinance doesn’t allow “livestock” (including fowl) except in the RG-1 zone, so poultry-keeping is illegal unless we change the ordinance. The Planning Commission is taking up the issue — and Charlie Hensley says it’s on their policy work session agenda for this Thursday, February 11 (5:30 pm in the Municipal Building Training Room).

Urban chickens (and other fowl) are “in” these days, and many jurisdictions have been changing their zoning laws to allow them (for example, here’s a news story from last year on Durham, North Carolina, legalizing backyard chickens).

Most prospective chicken-keepers suggest that the ordinance should allow no more than 4 to 6 chickens per household — and almost everyone seems to agree on no roosters (many people enjoy hearing “cock-a-doodle-doo,” but there are many more who don’t). One poultry proponent said in an e-mail that “What matters is … that the conditions are sanitary and that it does not stink, and it is not an eyesore.” The Planning Commission will also have to think about whether an ordinance would need to include specifications on things like setbacks from property lines, and whether the city can and should enact requirements on how these birds are housed. The Planning Commission can make a recommendation to City Council, and any change in the ordinance would require City Council action.

I expect that people interested in keeping chickens (or turkeys, ducks, guinea fowl, geese, pheasants, or quail) will be at Thursday’s meeting — and will be communicating their views to Community Development directory Kathryn Baldwin, Planning Commission members, and City Council. To help in reaching good decisions, we also need to hear the concerns of people who don’t like the idea — and I expect that we’ll hear from them, too.  As issues go, this one should be an amusing one to discuss — already I’m hearing good stories about people’s personal experiences with fowl.

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