Wednesday, December 20, 2017

City Officials misrepresent and ignore Forest Hill Heights Small Area Plan

I plan to write about the Mayor's proposed moratorium on stand-alone apartment complexes in the City at a later time. First we need a bit of background.  

Although I prefer not to take stands on particular zoning issues in this blog, I take seriously the promises the City makes to residents, and wish that our leaders would as well. "Bait and switch" is a tactic that does not sit well with me. I will also allow my readers to judge whether the City has been entirely honest, competent, and transparent the way it has handled the approval process of apartment complexes in the Forest Hill Heights (FFH) area. Please remember that this blog is devoted to the issues of honesty, competence, and transparency in City government, and not specifically zoning issues, except to inform the citizens.. 

Current Planned Apartment Complexes in FFH Greatly Exceed the Number Envisioned in the Smart Area Plan  

The City contracted with Robert Charles Lesser Company (RCLCO)  to help with planning in the Forest Hill Heights area. Here was the result, given in November of 2015, which was included in the Forest Hill Heights Small Area Plan. The "market potential" is found on page 24. 

Please Click on this to enlarge.

Something jumps out at me from this chart. At the end of ten years, the "market potential" for multi-family rentals in FHH is 252 units! We are only two years into the ten year period and the BMA has approved the 310 unit Watermark complex and the Planning Commission has approved an outline plan for Viridian at 300 units, for a total of 610 units (the Viridian was reduced by the Planning Commission from their application which was for 370 units. We do not know what the final number brought before the Planning Commission will be--it could be bigger!).  

Several City officials have talked about the Small Area Plan for Forest Hill Heights in various meetings recently.  Let's see what some of them had to say. I am going to start with the Mayor, who gave us this slice of wisdom from the September Planning Commission meeting (transcribed below):  

This is verbatim from our mayor--  

We all participated in the Small Area plan, many of the residents here and property owners and stakeholders did, and so I would hope we would try to adhere to the plan to the best of our ability. I keep remembering that somewhat of a figure of 500 units in total, that was a concept and that wasn’t necessarily written in stone and stipulated if that would only apply to multi-family. I hope we would stay somewhat in that vicinity and this body’s got a lot of experience and wisdom so I know this is a tough task but you guys are up to it. 
(specific question by Planning Commission member) 
500 may not be the magic number and neither will 601 but not more than 1000, I mean when I cast a vote, and I will, at one point in time.

So, the mayor misremembers the number of apartment units envisioned by the small area plan, effectively doubling the recommendation of the ten year buildout, and then saying, well, not more than 1000 is okay. His answer would be that he added the for sale multi-family together with the rentals, and that he is justified in doing so because of "market conditions".  Even adding them together, the 500 figure was a total for ten years (at the end of 2025)  And exactly how have market conditions changed since 2015?  Why do we keep stating market conditions drive rentals over ownership units? Nothing has changed since 2015. If anything, a recently published  Wall Street Journal article states that the trend towards renting is over.

Director of Development Cameron Ross very briefly discusses the numbers of units in his report to the Planning Commission, but does not report the results in any way that can be tied back to the details of the study. He attempts to make it sound as though what the City recommends relates to the Small Area Plan. Basically he did the same thing as Mayor Palazzolo, but he added ALL housing types together when giving the numbers, including single family.  He neglects to mention the numbers that make up the totals-- multi-family rentals, or even total multi-family (that includes rental and ownership units.) This clip is only one minute long, and it is worth a listen.

Could Mr. Ross have been using the "total" numbers in order to imply that the Watermark Apartment units actually fit into the Smart Area Plan? If he had not added all residential units together, and used instead rental multi-family, Watermark alone would not even be consistent with the Smart Area Plan. Imprecise and selective information sharing such as this by our Director of Economic Development to the Planning Commission is particularly concerning because the commissioners depend on the City staff.  In one recent Planning Commission meeting, a commissioner had to ask why the residents were saying that originally FHH was zoned for office use. The answer was that in 2016 a Smart Growth T5 "overlay" was put on the area, which opened it up for apartment complexes for the first time. I won't link that part of the meeting here because I do not want to embarrass anyone and I definitely don't want to discourage commissioners from asking questions, even if they should already know the answers.   

Needless to say, the commissioners did not question Cameron Ross  about the detailed composition of the recommended housing units in the Small Area plan. After all, he did not offer that information at the meeting. The commissioners either had not checked the details of the plan themselves, or they just did not care.

Here is Planning Commission member Dike Bacon touting the "great" Small Area plan and its public meetings that he participated in as he explains his yes vote for the Watermark complex.   

Again, I find it quite odd that people touting the process of developing the Small Area plan, and the citizens having input, at the same time ignore the actual result of the process, either by conveniently forgetting what was in it, randomly throwing out different numbers, or completely neglecting to mention the types of different housing units envisioned.  

At least Mr. Bacon acknowledges that there is increased density in Watermark and gives the rationale. However, he does not speak of the 300 units in the proposed Viridian complex, which has made it through an important stage in the Planning Commission.  Instead Mr. Bacon is addressing the increased density of the Watermark, which originally applied for 225 units. Discussions with the City brought the number of units up to 310. Although the City claims that this is due to wanting the configuration of the buildings to match the street frontage, probably the main reason is that the Watermark developers submitted an unsatisfactory looking retention pond in their first version, and the City did a tradeoff with the developers, allowing them to build more units in exchange for a decent looking retention pond.

Now I have to go back to my post on the last BMA meeting. It was actually Forrest Owens' comments that finally made me search out the Small Area Plan that the City officials had been touting.  It is worth linking his comments again (transcribed below):  

Beginning at the 1:15 mark in the above clip, Forrest Owens states the following:  

(snip) In all matters of development in our city we strive to be process driven, and we follow a plan, whether it is the comprehensive 2030 plan, or whether it is our land use plan, or in this case, whether this is our Small Area Plan—the Forest Hill Heights Small Area Plan.  And we went through the Small Area Plan process, what has it, been 12 or 18 months ago. Where we discussed the length the location in Forest Hill Heights where multifamily was proposed, and it was exactly as Mr. Ross displayed, there has been multifamily planned here, it just so happens that this is the first project that we are getting here within the Forest Hill Heights area out of the gate, and I am not extremely happy about that. I do believe that density is not a bad thing and that having some multifamily in here is necessary to create a vibrant, walkable community that is going to have neighborhood services that we want, where people can get their community coffee or their dry cleaning and live in close proximity to that and walk to that………..(snip) and I think that Germantown is where we are today based on leaders who have had the strength to follow a plan against controversy, this is not easy for me to go against maybe the wishes of the few, but I am following a plan that we gained public consent on and I know as a land use planner by trade and that when we follow a plan we get desired outcomes. (snip)

I started to try to count the number of times the word "plan" was used in the above clip but I lost track. I, too, believe in process. Heck, I am ALL about process. Process is transparency. Process, in this instance, required acknowledgment that the Smart Area Plan's recommendations on numbers of units for certain types of residential housing were different from the votes of the Planning Commission, and different from what was being voted on at the BMA meeting. Mr. Owens voted for both Viridian and Watermark, and  the total units of these complexes (610) greatly exceeds the amount of not only rental multifamily (252) in the FHH Small Area plan, but also the total multifamily (497) in the plan ....for the full ten year period. (The proposed moratorium does not apply to Viridian, and the Watermark complex is fully approved). Ignoring a recommendation in the plan requires an explanation for the deviation.

But no such recognition and no such explanation occurred. Is this process? I would call it arbitrariness instead. Simply saying you are following process does not make it so.

The process I believe in is consistent, open and complete. Forrest Owens cites the location of the Watermark when discussing the Small Area Plan, but not the numbers. Watermark gets something of a pass because it is in the area that multifamily was planned. The issues are--why is it all rental when the plan called for more sales units than rental units, and why did the Viridian get through the Planning Commission meeting in September with only three no votes?  

In short, Mr. Owens touts the process, believes that good decisions come out following process, yet he ignores the results of the process without explanation. There is a disconnect here.

Can someone please tell me why we wasted time, effort and money on meetings and consultants to come up with a Small Area Plan when the results are treated so carelessly?  I value time and I obviously value money. Why did we throw both out the window?  More importantly, why are our City officials touting the Small Area plan when they seemingly don't really care what it says? 

It has only been two years since the Small Area Plan for Forest Hill Heights was published. The only thing that has changed in the area since that time is that a school is now being planned for the general area. The City officials touting the Small Area Plan could have made the argument that things are different now due to the school location, and that is why they weren't following the Small Area plan. The school may be creating more demand for housing in the area.  

However, no one made that argument. I believe that there are two reasons for that: 1. They would rather pretend that they are following the plan, and 2. If they mention the school, then they might have to come up with actual rational projections on the number of public school students that will be living in the new developments.  

I don't have time to discuss the issue in detail in this blog post, but we have serious overcrowding in GMSD, and the new school is meant to address those issues, not to handle an influx of new students from new developments. 

Cameron Ross left out information about the projected number of students from the developments in the December 11 BMA meeting when he challenged Mr. Barzizza's estimates on the number of students that would be coming from the apartment complexes. 

Here he cites the developer's low estimates (ratio of .18 students per unit) to answer Mr. Barzizza, rather than our own Superintendent's estimates. Note that I am not criticizing the developer for their estimates, but Cameron Ross for using those alone, as he was well aware that Jason Manuel's estimates based on Germantown's numbers were higher. What seems strange to me is that Mr. Ross is so attached to the developer's Colorado figures that he actually went to the trouble to ask them to break it down by elementary, middle and high school!  


In the November Planning Commission meeting , Superintendent Jason Manuel stated that he used a ratio of .31 students per living unit to estimate the number of students from the new complexes, based on Germantown history. Mr. Ross obviously attended that meeting and heard every word. Yet he chose to ignore it completely later at the BMA meeting, and only use the developer's numbers from Colorado, without even mentioning our own superintendent's estimates. 

Here is a clip from Jason Manuel's presentation at a Planning Commission meeting:  


In a later blog post I will briefly discuss the Mayor's proposed moratorium on apartment complexes.


  1. This is frustrating and perplexing. Thank you for your analysis.

  2. Are you coming to the meeting tonight? We certainly need you there! Thank you for all of this information!

  3. Are you coming to the meeting tonight? We certainly need you to attend. Thank you for all of this information.