Thursday, June 11, 2009

Planning Commission Defers Tygard's LED Billboard Ordinance after an Avalanche of Opposition

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.


  1. Would we allow real estate executives, sign industry lobbyists, Planning Commissioners who are registered lobbyists, lobbyists from the hotel industry, Chamber of Commerce reps, two Metro Codes employees, a young Planning Staff member, and three citizens who have not been actively engaged recently in protecting their community to be the only decision makers in our SubArea Planning Process for our community? Absolutely not.

    So why then would the recommendation from this mix of people now called a Task Force(when we don't even know where they live) have any real meaning to the Planning Commissioners and their decision?

    I dare say if the Task Force was made up of real, actively engaged, outspoken neighborhood leaders this recommendation would be very different.

    What if a different task force came back with a recommendation and a plan that eliminated all lit signs in neighborhoods and a time period for all signs to become smaller and monument in style, even eliminating LED technology throughout the city? What would the commissioners have said then? There are cities that are doing that very thing.

    One commissioner got it right when they asked, what is driving this need to change the sign law? When Tygard answered "uniformity", people chuckled. We already have uniformity, it is just uniformity that sign companies don't like because they cannot sell LED signs to everybody in the city. What kind of logic is that?

    I think that several commissioners had great questions. Victor Tyler asked why were so many neighborhood groups in attendance if the neighborhood advocates on the Task Force approved the plan. With the exception of Burkley Allen, no "neighborhood advocate" made any attempt to communicate with the citizens of this city. There were no televised meetings, minutes from meetings available, or communication from Mr. Tygard. So how can Mr. Tygard say that the voice of the people had any input into the recommendation? Quite simply, they didn't. Except Ms. Allen, they were just handpicked individuals that represented themselves, not all of us.

    As for emotion, the only one who showed emotion last night was Mr. Tygard. His voice was trembling, and he mixed up his syllables when mentioning the name of the vice-mayor. His logic as to why the churches or schools didn't show up made no sense. They could pay their reps to show up. Perhaps the churches and the schools don't really want them? Perhaps they are content to co-exist in neighborhoods where their members live. Neighbors didn't exactly enjoy sitting in a meeting for hours or speaking publicly in front of a televised audience. All of them shared facts and time consuming research. I'd say many of them have contributed as many (or more) hours as Task Force members. I thought their case was well represented.

    There were no Task Frce members who came to speak in favor except Tygard and Commissioner Clifton. Why was that? If this recommendation was so great for the city and you had worked so hard to create it, wouldn't you be so proud to attend a meeting to present and defend it? There was only one Task Force member present and he wanted to take his vote back. He did not support the recommendation.

    Maybe it is just the places where people attend from outside the area who want a sign? Should we change the entire city's sign laws for the few? Should we jeopardize the look of our city for people who do not live in our neighborhoods and may not even live in our city?

    Don't write off the Commissioners so soon. There are a few that are most definitely part of the political machine. There are also many who realize the impact that this bill will have to the overall look and character of our city.

    Our job as citizens is to continue to communicate with them, sharing the facts. I am not giving up faith, nor the battle to protect my neighborhood and my city.

  2. Hi, I'm the Stewart Clifton guy who you've been talking about as having said public opinion should not count in Planning Commission decisions. What I thought I said was nothing like that. I do in fact believe that numbers of supporters should have no place in influencing how Commissioners vote. But I also believe (and stated) that the quality and strength of arguments is always relevant and important. I am undecided on the bill, which is one reason why I moved to defer til August. Part of the reason I and others are undecided were the arguments made, some of which I had not thought about before.