Several Planning commissioners looked a little skittish at tonight's public hearing on the LED billboard ordinance after an hour or two of listening to over 25 opponents (several of whom represented neighborhood associations of many members) criticize the measure and of their own casting about for solutions that could please commercially-minded but community-based non-profits and appease the throngs of opponents (200 e-mails opposing LEDs had been received), who seemed as mobilized by the proposal as they were before it spent months being tooled by a task force.
Initially bucking the favorable recommendation of the Planning Department, the commissioners voted to defer their vote on the ordinance until August 1 after Planning Director Rick Bernhardt mercifully offered them three options for causing a delay in the Metro Council public hearing of the LED bill on July 7. The Director told the group that he had already powwowed with the Planning and Council lawyers to produce workable solutions based on the charter and council rules. Charlie Tygard also promised to defer the bill at the July 7 public hearing.
Until that point it seemed to me that their vote was angling against neighborhood leaders. The commissioners who seemed to speak most critically of the ordinance were Andree LeQuire and Hunter Gee. Those who advocated voting with Charlie Tygard were CM Jim Gotto and Tonya Jones. Leaning toward advocating were Stewart Clifton, Phil Ponder and Derrick Dalton. Sitting on the fence were Judy Cummings and Victor Tyler. Chair James McLean did not weigh in with an opinion. The deck seemed stacked against opponents to me.
I was generally impressed by the arguments of the opponents during the public hearing. I thought that they did a better job than they did at last year's public hearing and their arguments seemed tight and reasonable to me. There seemed to be a lot less of the high-hat language of sign clutter and visual pollution. Instead, opponents seemed to engage practically the impact that the ordinance would have in their neighborhoods. They challenged the Planning Department to find out whether LEDs could negatively affect property values and to launch studies to see whether LEDs in fact made a difference in church attendance before making blanket zoning decisions across Davidson County. (However, let's not forget that this is the same Planning Department that recommended the May Town proposal last year with no independent traffic or economic study because they claimed they did not have the money to study).
But things seemed to turn against opponents when the commission gave Mr. Tygard more than 10 minutes to speak after he asked for "latitude" because he was the only proponent to speak during the public hearing. No churches, non-profits, or community centers showed up. CM Tygard used large chunks of that time to impugn the opposition as too emotional, a previously-used meme which was repeated later by a couple of commissioners in their discussion, including Stewart Clifton. And yet, Mr. Clifton turned around and seemed to suggest that proponents of LED signs may not have shown up because they were intimidated by the well-organized opposition; that suggests that the pro-LED response was driven by emotion, does it not?
Regardless, I think the charge of relying on emotion was a brash attempt to discredit the strength of the opposition. And the commissioners and bill sponsor who raised it failed to give any examples. It was a red herring. Mr. Clifton iterated that the commission should not be swayed by how well-organized or how large the opposition was but should judge the reasonableness of their arguments; not that he spent much time doing that himself. Emotional arguments occurred on both sides of the issue, and they can be best dispensed with by focusing on the well-crafted arguments.
In my opinion, the commission's deferral serves all sides in the controversy. Mr. Clifton asserted that appeals to popular opposition are better put to the Metro Council than to the Planning Commission. He maintained that the commission should make its decisions strictly on "land use" rather than popular will. That's fine to a point, but why does the commission have public hearings? And why have I heard so many times from various commissioners that feedback from the neighborhoods makes a difference to their decisions? At least one commissioner disagreed with Mr. Clifton, maintaining that consideration of public opinion brings practical factors into the discussion so that land use decisions can be better informed. However, I do think that the deferral allows the commission to shake off the popular pitch forks and to come to a mutual decision in a "workshop" free from public pressure. They promise that they intend to find a way to prohibit council from running trick plays with the ordinance to continue to allow spot zonings for LEDs. We'll see.
And while some opponents seemed frustrated with the delay in a vote, I saw it as a net gain given the unfortunate scheduling of the Metro Council public hearing so close to the July 4 holiday when many opponents would be distracted with travel and family plans. The deferral buys the opposition more time to continue to organize, to motivate council members to vote against Tygard, and to turn out massively for the council public hearing. While I don't underestimate the power of a commission vote against the bill (which would raise the council's approval bar to a supermajority or 2/3's vote), I think the opposition needed more time than 3 weeks to prepare. And I would frankly be shocked if the commission voted against Tygard. The public opposition seemed to stagger them some. It may be a close vote, but it looks like to me they are going to recommend the LED-billboards-for-neighborhood bill with conditions. They just seemed ready to get out of the harsh light of public attention to do so.
If opponents win this fight, they'll have to do so in Metro Council, even though I think Commissioners Gee and LeQuire deserve kudos for putting up their own opposition. Gee told the commissioners that he supports the LED task force's recommendation that the ordinance should not be passed unless there is enough money in the budget to enforce it. If he can find a way to convince the commission to make that condition an iron-clad limitation on council, I don't see how this ordinance wins in a tight Metro budget year.