Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Anatomy of the BMA Meeting December 11, 2017

Almost everyone is too busy to attend BMA meetings, especially this time of year, and most do not even have the time to listen to three hours of recorded video. In this post I present a few highlights and clips from the latest meeting in a user friendly format, so that busy citizens can become familiar with some important issues without feeling too burdened. The clips may be watched if my commentary is inadequate or if you are particularly interested in the subject. I also link the full YouTube video at the end.

After the awards were given to the number one nationally ranked Houston Girls' Soccer team and the teacher and student of the month, the BMA meeting Monday night moved on to more controversial issues. It is evident that there is a split in our BMA, and in the city, as many citizens feel that  there is an ongoing effort to overdevelop the Forest Hill Heights portion of the city (on Winchester in southeast Germantown). On Facebook some have expressed concern about the area turning into "another Cordova". These commentators mean nothing ill about the fine residents of Cordova, but they do not welcome challenges that increased density and apartment buildings may bring (more traffic, higher crime rate, and crowded schools). They note that dense apartment complexes along Winchester Road do not have a good history of affording stability to an area. In fact, David Nischwitz had noted in his candidacy for alderman this past election that his employer's apartments on Winchester and Hacks Cross had some of the highest crime rates of any complexes across the southeast. 

Currently two large apartment complexes are being planned for the Winchester area--the Viridian is 380 units and is located north of Winchester on the Collierville border, and Watermark is 310 units and is south of Winchester on Crestwyn. A third apartment complex (Parc) project was pulled by the developers. They reportedly were told that this needs to come back as something other than a stand alone project.  This could resurface at any time, with something like an added FedEx Office or coffee shop added. The Mayor proposed a moratorium on stand alone apartment buildings last week, and that moratorium will be voted on at the next BMA meeting. Also in the works is Goodwin Farms, a small lot development of 200-232 homes north of Winchester at Crestwyn. 

The controversy in the meeting started right out of the gate with the Consent Agenda. Never mind that the Consent Agenda is supposedly reserved for items that have no opposition. Apparently the contention is that the governing body often hides items in the Consent Agenda so that discussion on them will be limited, and the citizens will not be allowed to hear a full vetting of the items involved.  

Here is very the short discussion of the Consent Agenda: 

Alderman Massey objected to two of the items on the Consent Agenda, namely  

10B Forest Hill Heights Supplement #2  for the FHH Small Area Plan which he said was for "rehiring the same folks that determined that the current density level and apartments and things of that nature is the correct path." Mr. Massey feels that item needs further discussion and should not be buried in the Consent Agenda. 

10E Recognition of the Grant Award from the Memphis Association of Realtors-- Mr. Massey feels that this needs full discussion because the grant was used to bring a North Carolina consultant into town to give a speech about the advantages of Smart Growth. He wants Germantown citizens to know the groups that are promoting Smart Growth and the density that it brings. (The National Association of Realtors actively supports Smart Growth policies.)

Rocky Janda moved to accept the Consent Agenda, and the motion was seconded by Mary Anne Gibson. 

The Consent Agenda was passed 3-2, with Rocky Janda, Mary Anne Gibson, and Forrest Owens in favor, and John Barzizza and Dean Massey opposed.  

Since I am going chronologically through this meeting, we temporarily drop zoning issues and dive into "stop loss" health insurance for Germantown employees. Germantown is self-insured, but is protected for claims over $115,000 for each employee. The vote for the stop loss insurance contract was Agenda item 11. I am not including the entire discussion for the sake of brevity. The discussion does speak to the different philosophies of two aldermen, and I therefore concluded that this issue was worthwhile to include in this post. The clip begins with some of the questions to staff after presentation on the proposed stop loss policy, the cost of which goes from $590,000 this year to $617,000 next year.

Alderman Massey points out that the total costs of health insurance for employees and retirees has gone from six million dollars to seven million dollars, which is "not sustainable." He states that what he pays for insurance through the Germantown plan is "very very low" and not something he could get in the corporate world. 

He also he said he was tipped off "today" (the day of the meeting) that the bids for the stop loss insurance only gave a few days notice to potential bidders. Alderman Massey states that this was the likely reason that only one bid was made for the stop loss insurance. (Note: although not included in the above clip, Rocky Janda had earlier claimed that the competitive bidding process was responsible for saving the City a substantial sum of money on the stop loss insurance. To me, receiving one bid does not seem competitive.) The staff member stated there had to be as much history as possible to give to the bidders, and this accounted for the time frame. Furthermore she said she informed potential bidders that they could request more time. Alderman Massey, who is in the insurance business, said that this strategy is unlikely to produce any more bids, because the companies will just move on to another project. 

The different philosophy emerges at 10:29 in the above clip when Mary Anne Gibson suggests that this all should have been discussed in the privacy of staff offices, so that everyone could be "prepared" for the meeting before the public. Alderman Massey stated that he did not receive the alderman packet until the Friday before the meeting Monday. Furthermore his belief is that these issues should be discussed in a public forum so that the citizens can be informed. I also wondered how he could have discussed this with staff ahead of time if he only found out the day of the meeting that little notice was given on bidding.

This agenda item passed, although Alderman Massey abstained because of the solitary bid received on the stop loss insurance.   

Returning to zoning issues, Item 13 on the agenda, Public Hearing Resolution 17R26 – Amendment to the Outline Plan of the Forest Hill Heights Amended Planned Development, provides for extending the T5 Smart Growth zoning designation to the entire Forest Hill Heights area, and removal of a limit of twelve units per acre. Translation: Practically anything would be a "go" in the entire area, most notably--apartments.  And apparently the units can be squished closely together. Thus the Watermark and Veridian would be just the tip of the iceberg as extending the T5 zoning to the full 200+ acres of Forest Hill Heights would result in even greater population density. This of course would potentially further exascerbate the issues of greater traffic, crime, infrastructure needs, and overcrowding of schools. If the Mayor were serious about halting the growth of the area, it would have made sense to pull this item from the agenda, rather than simply placing a temporary moratorium on future stand alone apartment projects.  

Although the complexes currently being discussed are not affected by this particular agenda item because the zoning in these areas is already "T5", the residents of the Crestwyn area took the time and effort to express their extreme frustration over the state of affairs in their neighborhood, and talked of past promises broken, potential school overcrowding, the history of deterioration of apartment buildings, and their lack of faith in the current politicians. 

One of the residents of the area who lives on a one acre lot stated that he had worked in the real estate industry for decades and never once had anyone tell him that they wanted to live near an apartment complex. 

Now we get to hear what the aldermen have to say. 

Mary Anne Gibson asked whether the police department would be able to take care of safety in the area and she got a "yes" answer. There really was not enough content on how she felt about the apartment complexes or zoning to insert a clip. 

John Barzizza spoke of the number of calls against the apartment projects he had from citizens, and stated that his job is to serve the public, and that the public does not want apartments. He also talked about the possibility of school overcrowding. 

In this clip, Forrest Owens states that all developments have controversy, and this is a case of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard). He notes the importance of following the process, and the process includes multi-family in this neighborhood. Density is not a bad thing and is necessary for a vibrant community. He notes his background as a planner.  

As an aside, I feel NIMBY is only partially relevant to the feelings of citizens about the large number of apartment complexes being planned. Please remember the informal survey of Germantown that was posted by a resident on NextDoor (see this blog post). Condominiums are favored over apartments  by responders at a rate of 92% to 8%.  Also there were Facebook commenters from all over town that were opposed to this project. Admittedly it does affect the homeowners in one corner of the city more than the rest of us, so it is reasonable that they would take a more vocal role in opposing the project. NIMBY is a derogatory term, although Mr. Owens clearly stated that he did not intend it that way.

Rocky Janda parroted a lot of what Forrest Owens said-- namely that Germantown residents always resist projects but that the leaders realize this and go forward anyway, to the betterment of the community. Everything always turns out fine.

Director of Economic Development Cameron Ross answered a question about Watermark in the middle of the clip. I edited out some of his comments challenging the number of school students that Alderman Barzizza estimated could result from the apartment complexes. This edit was because it did not fit into Mr. Janda's remarks. The issue of how the apartment complexes will affect our overcrowded schools is discussed briefly below.

After Mr. Janda spoke, Alderman Barzizza then answered the comments by Cameron Ross on the number of extra school students that the apartments would supply. Mr. Ross had stated that the developer's Watermark estimates were based on a school system in Colorado. I know, it seems strange. Supposedly there would probably be about 18 public school students per 100 apartment units. Since the two apartment complexes currently planned for the area have about 700 units, around 124 extra students could be expected, if one uses the Colorado statistics. Mr. Barzizza believes that the statistics used do not apply to Germantown, because so many families are specifically looking for Germantown or Collierville schools, and his experience with private schools indicates that large numbers of students are actually switching from private to public schools.  He notes that we do not want to have to go through another school site selection process any time soon. 

As a side note, other factors lead me to believe that the developer's estimate is low. First, this area is very near where our new elementary school is planned. In fact, it seems no accident that all the development in this area comes at exactly the same time that the elementary school site was announced. We also need to remember that our Mayor actively and vehemently promoted a school site property very near the one ultimately selected, and one of his criteria in selecting the site was that the school would attract "rooftops" to the area. Boy, was he ever right!! Well, the rooftops come because families are seeking schools. This really is not that hard to figure out.  

Secondly, the developers were quoted in the Memphis Business Journal as saying that Germantown's "fantastic schools" was one of the criteria for selecting the site! 

Finally, GMSD is using a an estimate (31 students per 100 units) that is almost double the one the apartment developers gave, and is based on a rate which applies to the realities of Germantown rather than Colorado. Using the GMSD estimate rather than the Colorado estimate would lead to a result of over 200 students from the two apartment complexes. 

In all of these estimates, we are not even counting the small lot home development, Goodwin Farms, which will be located very near the school. If there are 200 homes in Goodwin Farms, the GMSD estimate would mean 62 additional students in our public schools.

Now, back to the meeting. 

Below are Alderman Massey's remarks. He stated that people were not counting on zoning changes when they bought their houses, and the huge changes in the area will affect both their way of life and their property values. Smart Growth is being used to inundate this one particular neighborhood with apartment buildings--they are not being spread out throughout the city. Although the proposed Parc complex has been put on hold because of the moratorium, the other two complexes are not affected by the moratorium, and mixed use complexes are also not affected. There is no guarantee that the moratorium will not be lifted at a future date and the Parc apartment complex will be back. People did not know when they bought their houses that Smart Growth would be applied to the area. They had counted on the area being subject to office buildings but not residential apartments. The CIty is not living up to its promises.

Things got testy when Mr. Massey stated that Forrest Owens' profession calls for him to lobby for apartment buildings across the country (he is an urban planner). Mr. Owens strongly objected to this and insinuated that Mr. Massey declared that he had a conflict of interest, and he does not. Both Mr. Owens and Mayor Palazzolo stated that Mr. Owens recuses himself when there is a conflict of interest. Mr. Massey reiterated that there is no conflict with this particular project, but that Alderman Owens' profession is one that includes lobbying for many other apartment complexes.  

The discussion deteriorated, a vote was taken, and the result was a vote of 3-2 in favor of applying T5 Smart Growth zoning to the rest of the Forest Hill Heights area. Aldermen Owens, Gibson, and Janda voted yes, and Aldermen Massey and Barzizza voted  no.  

After a break, the BMA began discussing the Watermark warrants that comprised Agenda Item 14. Warrants are exceptions to the Smart Code that need to be approved by the BMA. Most of the warrants were not controversial, but because Alderman Massey is against the project, he voted against the warrants. Alderman Barzizza voted against the warrants with the exception of the ones that involved safety. To me, one of the oddest warrants is to create parallel parking spaces for Watermark on Crestwyn. Obviously this will narrow the street. For the most part people do not know how to parallel park safely on a narrow street with lots of cars passing. All the warrants passed because Aldermen Janda, Owens, and Gibson were unanimous in their approval of each of the warrants.  

One thing that sounded a little odd about the discussion of the Watermark complex was that the term "public spaces" was used several times. The complex will not be fenced, and there will be "pocket parks" and green space, which is consistent with Smart Growth. Public space is also consistent with Tax Incentive Financing! Let's hope that there will not be any suggestion of using tax incentive financing for an apartment complex, just because there is a bit of grass that the public can walk on. I am not predicting this, because the idea that Germantown would be givng tax breaks to an apartment complex is clearly outlandish, but we need to keep our eyes open for the possibility. That would be a gross misuse of TIF. TIF is discussed briefly in this blog post.

Sign ordinances and other agenda items were discussed and passed. 

The full list of agenda items and the full video may be found here on the City website. 

Germantown TV posted the full video on YouTube.

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