Friday, April 16, 2010

Putting My Mouth Where My Money Is

A lot of what passes for punditry here can seem rather abstract or remote from daily existence. I try to keep things tangible but it doesn't always work. Tonight, however, things couldn't have been more direct for me as far as politics and real life. As close as my own front door.

I just came in, at about 12:15 in the morning, from a local city commission meeting that started at 6pm. The issue at hand involved the proposed rezoning and land use of a golf course, one of which's holes is effectively an extension of my front yard. My kids play there daily after the last round of duffers pass through.

Like so many other businesses, golf as a business is not doing well these days (it is here that I will refrain from digressing into a George Carlin rant about golf courses and the land they waste). The owners of the course, longstanding and respected members of and employers in the community that I live, came up with a plan to close the lesser of the two courses in town, the one I live across from, in order to get financing to refurbish the main course on the other side of the main road. A decent enough plan under the circumstances. But sale of the individual course was not possible so they applied to have the land rezoned for a new use. The new use was primarily for residential construction. Without getting to the obvious details, folks in range of the course were outraged that new development was on the table in this era of extreme hardship and excess in the housing market. And I didn't want a new row of townhouses built a hundred feet away from my door over the course of the next several years.

I've never been to a city commission meeting and I didn't expect much. But after running a little late I came around the corner to see the city hall mobbed. But not entirely with the red shirt-wearing fellow protesters of the plan. No, there seemed to be many more people there in green shirts saying YES to the plan. I got a sinking feeling. It was a great deal for the company but my home value, already slashed in half since the peak in 2005, would likely take another ten percent hit the moment the plan was approved. Green space around here is a rare commodity and private land or not, the communities had a stake in keeping it that way.

The company's attorney gave an excellent presentation that made lots of good points about what to do with a piece of "defunct" green space. But suddenly one of the neighborhoods came through with an attorney representing our side and slice by slice proceeded to take down the previously unchallenged plan. Then the public comments came in, at which time, most of the green shirted folks suddenly disappeared. But those who remained became more real to me. They weren't paid shills for a corporate behemoth. They were the employees of a large but locally run family operation, and over 60 of them stood a good chance of losing their jobs if the plan failed.

I had a prepared statement for when my turn came along. It was a bit folksy, a bit sarcastic, and a bit analytical (just like this-a-here blogitty thang), but I was among the last to speak and I'd realized that most of my analytical points had been covered extremely well by our attorney. And it was closing in on 11:30 by then. After talking briefly with one of my neighbors, I hit on a change of approach. I still didn't come close to thinking there were any good reasons to approving this development plan, but I did realize that, regardless of the truth of the owner's claims of poverty, there were at least 60 people sitting there with me who would be hit hard by a losing decision. That was how I addressed the commission. In short, business is tough, but home values are tougher. Hard as it might be these days, folks who lose jobs can go anywhere to find another one. I can't move my house.

Surely my ego played a role, but the reporter from the local paper didn't run up to anyone to get their name except mine. If she runs my statement then I'll post a link as a post-script.

Suffice to say, going in, I thought this entire process was pretty well in the tank for the golf course owner long ago. He has genuinely solid and long connections to the town, and despite the 500 or so homeowners directly affected, this is a town of 60,000 in a region where development has always been the answer to all social ills. But we had to try.

Would ya believe it,,,, we WON!!! Unanimously at that. It really felt like democracy in action and a set of elected officials who appeared to change their minds over the course of the night. And finally, as happy as I was for myself and my neighbors, I feel for the employees of the golf course, a few of whom I caught choking back some sobs. And a strange thing,,, a feeling of community, not just with my neighbors, but with the folks who lost too. Some of them have worked at that course much of their adult lives. What I hope is that I and my neighbors can continue to work together to maintain what now seems like it will be one really big extended park, and be sure we can take care of it for ourselves, our kids, our city, and hopefully employ the folks who have always worked that space and kept it looking good. We were on opposite sides of a contentious issue. Now we must work together for all of us. Can we? Stay tuned.