Wednesday, November 28, 2007

So I Snatched It All Away from Him

When I walked in to my favorite downtown shop this afternoon, the owner was listening to an earnest young man with a clipboard petition.

The young man was talking about the plans to build a new mall on the outskirts of town. He was canvassing downtown business owners to get them to sign the petition decrying the proposal on the grounds that it would be destructive to downtown business. He was alarmed that this issue hadn't been broached at the various zoning board and planning commission hearings on the mall plans.

He wanted downtown business people to not only sign the petition, but to show up at these meetings and "be heard."

I wanted to tell the young man with the clipboard what came into my head then, which was something like this:

If you're going to fight something big the first thing you need to do isn't rally your personal sense of indignation and act it out. The first thing you need to do is learn the nature of the thing you're fighting, and the rules of the fight.

Like you, probably, I prefer downtowns to malls and I would like to think one big mall, which we already have here, is enough for us. But I also spent a decade covering "development" issues in the county next to this one, when tens of thousands of acres of farmland a year were going under for townhouses and shopping centers. There were as many as five mall proposals floating around at a time, each one bigger than this.

I sat through hundreds of meetings on this sort of thing, and I can tell you your approach is going nowhere.

It doesn't matter if you show up at that hearing. Because you don't live in the township where the mall will be built. Pennsylvania is divided into a patchwork of little six-miles-across municipalities, a relic of William Penn's social experiment, when the notion was that these would be village-based communities where people could walk to Quaker meeting or to a town meeting.

That never happened, and the townships slumbered through history until the idea of "zoning" came along in the 1950s and suddenly these township were the basic units of land-use planning and became enormously important. And they are answerable only to their residents unless, for some important and legally defensible reason, they vote to allow outsiders to be party to a hearing. Usually, unless the proposed mall is right on the township line and your out-of-township property literally backs up to it, they won't. Sometimes not even then.

The least-likely reason they'd hear you is because the proposal would damage a competitor's business. The role of local government is not to regulate economic competition. If you allow even a hint of that in your deliberations on the proposed mall, you instantly give the developer all the grounds he needs to make a legal challenge to anything you deny him.

By approaching the hearings without understanding this, you play right into the hands of exactly the thing you want to halt.

Maybe it would be better if local governments regulated economic competition. I doubt it. But it certainly would be better if zoning in this state were accomplished on a county level, instead of among this crazy patchwork of townships. But that's not the way it is. And if you want to win, not just complain, you have to fight it the way it is.

So you go find someone in the township who agrees with you to be the point man and be heard. And you look at the land plan and hammer it from the angle of the things the zoning boards and planning commissions are allowed to cite in rejecting the plan, if they choose to -- things like "health, safety and welfare of the community."

Chances are some of the people on those boards are hoping someone will do just that. They might be on your side. But if you just blunder in there complaining about the effect on other businesses, you'll make yourself poison to them.

All it takes is a will to win, not bitch, and a little homework. When did we forget that?

But I didn't say anything. I just paid for my purchase and left.