Tuesday, April 29, 2008

About Last Night's Controversial LED "Task Force" Meeting

I watched for media coverage today of last night's meeting called by Charlie Tygard under the auspices of a "task force" which he has charged with the goal of recommending changes to his bill that would permit several kinds of non-profit groups in residential areas to have commercial-type LED signs. I wasn't expecting much, because I saw no media types that I recognized in the committee room last night. And the only mention I could find today is what looks like uncited second-hand information at a Tennessean blog.

So, it looks like you are stuck with my interpretation of last night's meeting. Here are my impressions:
  • The meeting was well-attended. It looked like all of the committee was there and then there were also a couple of other council members in attendance to go with the 15-20 neighborhood reps who lined the walls of the average-sized Planning Commission committee room. I would call it a good-sized, but not large turn-out, and I think it is probably more than an unofficial and unsanctioned "task force" deserved, given that it cost some tax dollars to convene.
  • Both "neighborhood representatives" effectively communicated the opposition that they heard coming from their hyper-local communities. Both iterated that they knew of no one who came forward to support LED or who considered the prospect of placing them in neighborhoods a good thing. Anna Shepherd did well on her own, and while I am still concerned about the motives of CMs Tygard and Gotto in appointing her to this group, she did not disappoint me in conveying the general ambivalence of the neighborhood associations. But the focus seemed largely on suburban, low-density neighborhoods. The group has no representative from urban neighborhoods where people live in close quarters.
  • Right after Charlie Tygard launched the meeting and asked the Board of Zoning Appeals rep to address their concerns to the group, Megan Barry stepped up and redirected the focus by underscoring that the task force had not been officially appointed and approved. Rather than defining the mission of the group as recommending action to the council, she argued that the group had much less formal purposes: to share information and to generate options from the public who were in attendance. Once the group had achieved its informal goals, then she maintained that it should go back to the council and get approval for the Vice Mayor to appoint a formalized task force. I thought CM Barry's redirection and redefinition was a pivotal moment that needed to happen early in the course of the meeting. At that point the proverbial elephant in the room was acknowledged.
  • CM Barry redirected at another significant point when CM Tygard spoke of his intention of giving the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) direction so that schools and churches could obtain LED. Ms. Barry countered that she thought the intention in the discussion was to help BZA step back and consider what might qualify as exceptions to zoning in certain areas. She argued that a specific discussion of schools, churches, etc. was one "further down in the weeds," which I took to mean a discussion that could not be pursued until BZA had a better idea of what institutions could be exceptions to the current sign code. Again, this looked like a significant moment where an LED critic was trying to slow the process down so that in appropriately helping BZA, neighborhoods were not being hurt.
  • The appointed church representative of the group again emphasized that he did not think that churches should have to pursue exceptions on a case-by-case basis and have to "relive this over and over again." He seeks a blanket, one-size-fits-all-neighborhoods approach. It seems to me that unless neighborhoods have some kind of overlay, they have to fight battles over and over again, so why should churches be exempt from the same battle? Near the end he also said that he was willing to negotiate and find a third option, but I got the impression that he was suggesting that neighborhood associations were not willing. If that assumption is correct, then his suggestion is not entirely true. I've heard neighborhood leaders who have expressed support for his church getting an exception if its community does not object. That is a third option, which he is not willing to consider himself. So, who is failing to negotiate to a win-win at that point? I also agreed with the Donelson-Hermitage President who pointed out to him that the 7-day-week functions of churches now effectively make them commercial institutions with a non-profit status. Churches may not want to pay the high fees to pursue rezoning as individual institutions, but they save a lot of money by not paying taxes even as they provide services that compete with institutions that have to pay taxes. It seems to me that they are asking to double dip by skipping the rezoning fees that could allow them the LED signs that they want.
  • Group members moved several times to open the discussion to non-group audience, which again reinforced CM Barry's that the purpose ought to be to get options based on public feedback. Critics in the audience latched on to the unrepresentative nature of the group and on to Charlie Tygard's claim that neighborhoods constituted "special interest" groups in the same way that sign-makers did. One LED critic pointed out that her church has a very small non-LED sign and yet it is filled everyday by people attending various activities because they found out about them without benefit of LED.
  • I was surprised that Bobby Joslin argued that the "residential part" of the LED bill has to "disappear." He also acknowledged that he would not want a flashing LED sign on the street where he lives. Is he starting to believe that the firestorm that this bill brought on in the neighborhoods is actually hurting his cause? Not only are neighborhood critics opposing LEDs on their own streets, but this controversy is giving them a chance to talk about other cities that outlaw all LEDs (and in some cases all billboards), and talking about that prospect makes it more plausible. He may find himself quickly in a tight spot if he cannot find a way to compromise.
The discussion lasted an hour-an-a-half before lights in the complex were turned off as if on cue, effectively ending the meeting. Again, that was a chunk of official Metro time and probably more than an unofficial group deserved.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the update on the meeting Mike. And thanks to Megan Barry for fighting for the people of Nashville. She is a breath of fresh air in our Council and a blessing to our city. I'm proud of her for standing up to one of the commanders of the Council's old guard--it's about time a Councilmember called Charlie out!