Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ferndale council acts predictably--and that's no compliment

Monday night's hearing on South Oakland Shelters' (SOS) request to move their administrative offices to unused space at The First Baptist Church (FBC) in a north-west Ferndale neighborhood brought few surprises. After going through the mechanics a hearing requires the council voted as expected; four-to-one in favor of letting the FBC rent to SOS. After the vote, two council-persons did surprise me, in a disappointed-surprise kind-of-way.

Freshmen councilwomen Kate Baker demonstrated how personal bias can muddle a person's ability to understand what people say. Ms. Baker sounded exasperated as she defended the commitment and professionalism of the many volunteers that serve on the Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals, and lamented how she was unprepared to defend them against accusations to the contrary.

I never said the volunteers (who serve without pay and too little gratitude) weren't dedicated or professional. What I said was that on the issue of allowing SOS to move into the church neither body supported their decisions by publishing their findings of fact or communicating to the community (and especially ZIP) their interpretation of how SOS' business is an accessory use. But I can see how a personal bias for SOS and FBC, a weak interpretation of the zoning ordinance, and the knowledge of having dismissed the concerns of nearby residents would make the councilwoman a little touchy.

If someone is going to vote on a matter that affects my family, neighbors, and community I believe residents and businesses deserve as unambiguous an explanation as those voting members are able to provide--especially an issue as controversial as the FBC/SOS zoning ruling became.

Councilman Mike Lennon also surprised me, but his lone "no" vote wasn't the surprise. Mike Lennon often casts the only dissenting vote against the majority. Also not surprising was Mr. Lennon's not advocating the sentiments of the myriad of phone calls and emails from residents he claimed were the reason for his vote.

What was disappointing was his blasting ZIP for being disorganized and redundant, and wasting the city manager's time countering their false claims.

Where to begin?

First, why was our city manager handling SOS' public relations (PR) in the first place? If they had enough money to hire two attorneys they surely didn't need Bob Bruner to volunteer his (city-paid) time to act as their press secretary.

And when did council defer to the city manager permission to speak for the city or give him permission advocate for-or-against political issues that may come before the council? I thought "speaking for the city" was the Mayor's job, and Mayor Covey is more than up to the challenge.

Maybe council hasn't given the city manager carte blanche but is complacent letting him practice his politics on the city's dime rather than making sure FBC is following ordinances already on the books--or even the lower standard councilwoman Baker suggested at a commission meeting: that FBC would only need to be, "close to compliance."


SOS' attorney asked that SOS be treated just like any other business. I bet every Ferndale business wishes they only needed to be "close to compliance."

But disorganized and redundant? I'm uncertain what standard councilman Lennon is comparing ZIP against, but I'm confident that if ZIP were given the same considerations the applicant was given they could have been more organized and less redundant.

Because ZIP wasn't the applicant for the zoning ruling they were not allowed to sit with the grown-ups. ZIP's concerns had to be posited in three-minute monologues--even during hearings. Being excluded from conversations, having questions ignored or repeated in patronizing tones does not inspire feelings of fair representation.

ZIP was certainly no more redundant than the FBC's or SOS' supporters were during the long parades of three-minute comments.
Perhaps if citizens living near FBC (or any church) thought anyone on the council held their interests before FBC's they wouldn't have felt the need to line up for their three-minutes of if-a-resident-speaks-in-the-middle-of-the-forest time.

Perhaps if one of the councilpersons hadn't delivered a "true Christian" sermon during a council meeting, or if another of the councilpersons didn't suggest lower standards of compliance for the applicants or state (and restate--redundantly) what long-time SOS supporters their family has been, ZIP wouldn't have felt the need to organize.

Perhaps if the city manager hadn't acted contemptuously in meetings and press interviews ZIP may not have thought the entirety of the city's administration was against them, and wouldn't have had to publish their own literature.

But maybe I'm being redundant (perhaps), so I'll try something different.

In the motion read by Councilman Galloway, five criteria were identified that the Planning Commission supposedly used to grant SOS' request. One of them was that the commission didn't feel SOS' operating their business at the Church would negatively impact the immediate area's economic value (or words similar to that). For the sake of argument let's suppose it doesn't. We could ask, "does SOS's operating their business at the church improve the area's economic value?"

I can think of multiple, better-suited and properly-zoned areas in Ferndale where SOS' arrival would improve the economic prospects of the immediate area, the economic prospects of the property owner, and the economic prospects to the city as the property owner would be better able to pay his property taxes, participate in city events, or sponsor a softball-team or scrapbooking club.

I don't have statistics or numbers handy, so I'll make some up and tell a story that can't be verified (which seems to suffice for some councilpersons' pet causes--like the PSD tax).

When you purchased your home or looked for a neighborhood to move to was its proximity to an SOS administrative office on your list of desirable neighborhood traits?

When cities work to increase property value do they focus on schools, recreation, police, fire, and other essential services or does SEMCOG, the Michigan Municipal League, or the Michigan Suburbs Alliance recommend deferring to churches' need to offset lower collections to really bring-in the house hunters?

I sincerely hope SOS is successful in all they do, just as I do that churches thrive. Their missions are important. But I am as sincere in my belief that zoning laws protect neighborhoods as much as they do churches and businesses. In this case, at least, there was no need for the three to be in conflict. There is space enough in Ferndale for all three without all three being in the same space.

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