Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image

zoning

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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Signs too soon and signs too flashy

Traveling around Oak Ridge, I’ve been seeing two disconcerting trends related to signage, one temporary (“signs too soon”) and one more permanent (“signs too flashy”).

The temporary trend is political signs going up too soon. Oak Ridge’s sign ordinance (part of the zoning ordinance) specify that political signs can’t go up until 30 days before the election. Since early voting for the August primary starts July 16, that means signs shouldn’t appear until June 16. The county doesn’t have that kind of rule, though, and it looks like the signage that is sprouting legally outside the city limits has spread over the city line.  This weekend I’ve noticed yard signs for Rex Lynch for county mayor, Bill Haslam for governor, and John Shuey for county commission, plus a large truck-mounted sign for Aaron Wells. There may be others. Political signs are an important way for candidates to gain visibility, but many people are annoyed by the “sign wars” that accompany elections, so it’s sensible to limit the duration of those wars. I doubt that the candidates can restrain their over-eager supporters until June 16, but city staff should be reminding the candidates of the rules — and I can imagine that some voters will remember who put up their signs “too soon.”

The permanent trend relates to electronic signs with flashing messages and animation. Some people love that kind of sign, but there are many others who consider them to be visual clutter and a potential public nuisance.  I have thought that Oak Ridge’s sign regulations didn’t allow flashing and animated sign displays. Section 14.16 of the regulations says:

2. No sign shall have blinking, flashing, or fluttering lights or other illuminating device, which has a changing light intensity, brightness or color.

Also, Section 14.15 lists several kinds of signs that are prohibited, including:

Flashing signs or signs that contain reflective materials, which present a hazard or danger to traffic or the general public.

A “flashing signs” is defined in the ordinance as “Any sign which contains an intermittent or flashing light source, or which includes the illusion of intermittent or flashing light by means of animation, changes in the degree of light intensity, an externally mounted intermittent light source, or reflective metal strips.”

Still photo of the animated sign display in front of Oak Ridge High School

ORHS’ animated sign display next to Oak Ridge Turnpike

The ordinance does allow “moving copy signs” in several zoning districts. A moving copy sign is defined as “A sign which incorporates an electronically or mechanically generated changeable copy message within the sign frame, but which does not incorporate any mechanical movement of the sign itself or any use of pulsating or undulating copy message.”

Late last year, City Council was asked to amend the sign ordinance to allow a fairly large electronic “moving copy” sign on a pole in front of Oak Ridge High School (ORHS) — in a zone where signage previously was limited to relatively small ground signs. We were told that an electronic sign was advantageous because copy could be changed/controlled remotely from the school office, rather than requiring someone to get on a ladder to move letters. That seemed very reasonable, but I ultimately voted against the ordinance amendment, partly because I thought it would become a precedent for other organizations to ask for similar signs, and partly because of statements from school officials and students that suggested it would be used to display flashing messages and animations. The amended ordinance says:

For school facilities with a student population greater than one thousand (1,000), one (1) indirectly or directly illuminated or non-illuminated pole sign shall be allowed. The pole sign may be either a changeable copy sign (readerboard) or a moving copy sign. The surface display area of the pole sign shall not exceed sixty (60) square feet. The top of the pole sign shall be no higher than fifteen (15) feet from ground level.

As I read it, these ordinances prohibit the types of flashing light displays that I’ve seen lately at Rivers Car Care Center and TitleMax — not to mention the animations and flashing messages that ORHS has chosen to display on its new sign. Past conversations with city staff have suggested that they didn’t interpret the ordinance the same way I do. I intend to revisit that issue with staff, and I see from an Internet search that the interpretation and enforcement of similar ordinances is becoming an issue around the country: At the Citizens for a Scenic Florida website, I read that federal law prohibits flashing signs and animated signs on Interstates and other “federal-aid primary” highways, and many municipalities have definitions and restrictions similar to Oak Ridge’s sign ordinance. Comments on an online forum for professional planners indicate a general impression that bans on electronic signs aren’t being enforced; one person wrote:

Code enforcement departments seem to have written off sign regulations, as evidenced by the growing proliferation of animated and flashing signs in communities that otherwise prohibit or strictly regulate them. Are the days of static signs and commercial corridors that don’t resemble the Vegas Strip over? Are sign code issues passe among planners?

Several people have complained to me about the flashing signs I mention. I don’t hear much objection to those electronic signs that display a changing informational message, such as the text signs at IHOP and the CVS Pharmacy. However, people are bothered by animations and other rapid changes in lighted signs, regardless of whether the image is of a waving American flag, the company’s logo, fireworks, or this week’s special prices. The aesthetics of the resemblance to the Las Vegas Strip are one concern, but there are safety issues, too. It is particularly troubling when those flashing images are in a driver’s line of sight, as they can distract drivers from watching the road. Considering the negative responses some people have to these signs, I can imagine that flashing signs could “turn off” some prospective customers — the opposite of the result the businesses are hoping for.

Obviously, I haven’t yet heard from a cross-section of the community on this, but it’s my hunch that many of us would be much happier if local businesses would stop using all the fancy capabilities of their electronic signs. That is, treat them as electronic message boards, with static messages that change no more frequently than once every 10 seconds or so — and no dramatic changes in brightness, color, etc.

Update, June 13, 2010: Hurray for Oak Ridge High School! A few days ago, the animation came off their electronic sign. The last time I looked, it was displaying time and temperature, plus a “Welcome Class of 1960 – 50th Reunion” message. I believe that’s the kind of informational message the community was expecting when the sign was approved.

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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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City Council business on May 4 – two big items

There are two particularly big items on Monday evening’s City Council agenda.

One is first reading on the City budget for FY 2010. The draft budget is on the City website (there’s a prominent link on the main page), and paper copies are in the public library or available from staff at the municipal building. The City Council also needs to decide whether to fund the school board’s request.

The other hot item is proposed rezoning on the Centennial Village property near Edgemoor Road.  Council approved this on first reading several months back, conditioned on the prospective developer returning with a revised proposal with less density in single-family residential portions and minimization of tree cutting and land grading in those areas. The prospective developer (John Chilton) withdrew his proposal
before City Council’s second reading on the rezoning, so no final action
was taken.

Now a revised proposal has been submitted to the City, and a vote
(second reading on the rezoning) is scheduled for the May 4, 2009, City
Council meeting. The new proposal includes revised drawings and a
revised set of conditions for development. City staff is recommending
approval.

Council members particularly want to make sure that residents who previously
expressed concern about this development are aware that this matter is
before Council again — and have a chance to evaluate the new
proposal and express your views. The new proposal is outlined in the
City Council agenda package (available online) and a copy of the revised master plan has been made
available for public review in the City Clerk’s office (please call the
office ahead of time at 425-3411 if you want to stop in to review it).
Additionally, Mr. Ray Evans (who worked with Mr. Chilton on the new
proposal) has offered to talk or meet with residents to discuss the
proposal.

I look forward to hearing people’s views about the revised proposal — and
please pass the word to your friends and neighbors.

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Upcoming City Council business

I’ve already heard from one citizen with a question about an item on the April 13 City Council agenda (the agenda was posted Friday), so I guess it’s high time to discuss some of the business items. There’s a rezoning, action on the Chamber of Commerce contract, numerous bids and contracts including purchase of new police vehicles, “and much more.” Here are my musings about a few of these items (I’m interested in hearing what other residents think):

Rezoning request (updated April 7th)

The proposed rezoning is for a 1.25-acre lot at the corner of Tulsa Road and Tusculum Drive (there was a rezoning sign on the property, which is next to the entrance to the Burnham Woods subdivision, but I didn’t see the sign on Saturday). Requested rezoning is from R-4-B (multiple family residential) to O-2 (office district), to allow SMB Group (a construction contractor) to build a company office. (The company now has its office in the building at 100 Tulsa Road, at the corner of Tulsa and South Illinois Ave.) In addition to offices, permitted principal uses in the O-2 zone include multi-family dwellings, churches, hotels, day care facilities, and barber/beauty shops.

The Planning Commission recommended the rezoning by a unanimous vote at its March 26th meeting. The impact of the rezoning isn’t entirely clear. The R-4-B zone is supposed to be phased out, and uses in the new R-4 zone (which presumably would replace R-4-B) are pretty much the same as in the O-2 zone. The biggest difference I see are (1) in the R-4 zone buildings can occupy no more than 50% of the property, but the O-2 zone allows them to cover up to 80%, and (2) building plans in the O-2 zone require Planning Commission approval, but only staff review is required in the R-4 zone.

One possible concern is that the lot is mapped as being in the floodplain (of East Fork Poplar Creek and Gamble Valley Creek), but outside the floodway. Oak Ridge’s zoning ordinance does not restrict development in the portion of the floodplain outside the floodway (this is called the “floodway fringe”), as long as the ground floor is at least 1 ft about the calculated height of the 100-year flood. Fill already placed on the lot appears to have raised it above the flood level, so this is no longer a concern. The contamination (by mercury and PCBs released from the Y-12 Plant) in the floodplain of East Fork Poplar Creek also should not be a concern because the project should not disturb soils.

We’ll learn more about the rezoning proposal at the City Council agenda review work session on Monday, April 6 (6:30 pm in the City Services Center on Woodbury Lane, behind K-Mart), and there’ll be a public hearing at the April 13th City Council meeting (7 pm in the municipal building courtroom).

Chamber of Commerce contract

The City of Oak Ridge has a contract with the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce under which the Chamber (including the affiliated Oak Ridge Economic Partnership) provides economic development services to the City. The current contract is worth over $250,000 annually, including a $20,000 addition that the Council approved by a 5-2 vote in January of this year (Tom Hayes and I were the two who opposed this) to help fund an additional staff member to support the Chamber’s “Live Where You Work” residential recruitment program. The current contract expires June 30, 2009. It could be renewed for an additional year, but the Chamber wants to negotiate a new 3-year contract to begin July 1. City Manager Jim O’Connor is asking for Council authorization to negotiate with the Chamber to determine which option is in the City’s best interest.

Although it’s unlikely that meaningful changes will be made between now and July 1st, I hope to re-open meaningful dialog on the purpose and scope of the City’s relationship with the Chamber. Many residents question the City’s whole relationship with the Chamber of Commerce, asking whether it’s in the public interest to subsidize a chamber of commerce, which is fundamentally operated for the benefit of its membership. The cost of the contract and its benefit to the city are also perennial concerns. The rationale for the contractual relationship with the Chamber has to do with a concern that open-government laws would conflict with the need for confidentiality in business recruitment, as well as a perception that city government is inherently not very good at economic development. I think there is merit in this rationale, but it does appear to me that the City is essentially subsidizing the chamber without having a clear picture of what the public is getting for its money.

Much effort went into creating quantitative performance metrics for the current contract. It’s clear to me that it’s a lot of work for the Chamber to calculate and report those metrics (it turns out that the statistics they are asked to report are not readily available or easily determined), but it’s not clear that the metrics serve the intended purpose of ensuring that the City’s objectives are being met. I think the metrics need to be revisited.

I’d also like to see emphasis placed on helping local businesses (both new start-ups and long-existing companies) succeed, whether or not they are Chamber members. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that many small businesses fail, but if local government resources are being spent on supporting business development, we should be helping existing small businesses (folks who have already invested in this city) avoid the types of mistakes that often lead to doom. Also, we should be helping local retail businesses promote themselves through measures like improved signage, special events, and “shop Oak Ridge” campaigns.

The “Live Where You Work” campaign is a great initiative (and long overdue), but I would have preferred to see it included in the current contract (which was supposed to include residential recruitment), instead of being added on as if it were an extra activity. I am waiting to hear whether the Chamber and City Manager want to enlarge the contract on a permanent basis, or if the $20,000 is a one-time thing (as Council was told back in January).

New police vehicles

Council is being asked to approve bid awards to spend $186,000 to buy six new Ford Crown Victorias (equipped for police use) and two Chevy Tahoes.

The Crown Victorias would replace some existing police cars (including some that have already broken down). Replacement of these cars is included in the City budget. I’m unclear on the purpose of the Chevy Tahoes, but the documentation indicates that the police would like to buy a third Tahoe if the city gets a federal grant. The bid prices for all of the vehicles are exceptionally low, so the City would get a good deal on the purchases.

It’s clear that our police vehicles need to be replaced on a regular basis, and that these bids are a pretty good deal, but I question the business-as-usual approach of continuing to buy new gas-guzzling Crown Victorias and SUVs. Two new directions that we should be exploring are (1) greater fuel efficiency and (2) take-home vehicles.

Fuel-efficient wheels for police. After experiencing last year’s high gas prices, and in face of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many police forces around the country and the world are testing more fuel-efficient cars for police use. This includes our local Anderson County Sheriff’s Department, which is trying out Dodge Chargers for patrol use. The Charger is a muscle car like the Crown Victoria, but it is rated as more fuel-efficient. Some other jurisdictions are testing smaller vehicles and hybrids for police use, including Chevy Impalas in Mobile, Alabama, the Pontiac Vibe in Cahokia, Illinois, and Toyota Camry hybrids in Salt Lake City, and even the Toyota Prius in Marion County, Florida. I know that police officers like their Crown Victoria, but if other vehicles meet the performance requirements of police work without using as much fuel, they can both save money and help reduce our impact on global climate and air quality.

Take-home vehicles. In a meeting some time back, I was surprised to hear Police Chief David Beams say that it would be possible to stretch the service life of some police cruisers by assigning them to police officers as take-home vehicles. Take-home vehicles would last longer because they would be used for only one shift (instead of being used around the clock). There’s plenty of support for this idea. In addition to saving on vehicle replacement costs, this could increase the police force’s ability to respond to unusual incidents, as officers called in from home could respond quickly. Only officers who live in Oak Ridge city limits should be eligible to take vehicles home, they should be used only to travel to and from work, and a police officer in a vehicle would have to be required to respond to any incidents he or she observes while in the vehicle. For those who qualified, a take-home car could become an added fringe benefit — this would even provide a tangible incentive for our men and women in blue to live inside the city. A take-home program wouldn’t eliminate the need to replace six cars this year, but it might be worth trying out on a small scale to see if it’s truly beneficial.

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