The Importance of Good Character

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of the Citizens Engagement Task Force.  During that meeting Raleigh’s Planning Director, Ken Bowers, made a presentation to the task force about rezoning requests.  At one point someone asked him why people object to rezoning requests.  His answer really resonated with me.

Ken said that there are two main objections that people have with rezonings: the impact on traffic and the impact on the character of an area.

For me the last part of this statement was a revelation.  THE MAIN OBJECTION OF A REZONING IS THE IMPACT ON THE CHARACTER OF AN AREA. Even when it seems that the main objection is traffic, what people really object to is the change in character.  Yet, it can be remarkably difficult for people (even those who object to a rezoning) to think of their concerns in terms of character.  Here is why.

I have been involved with contentious rezoning requests where people walk away from public meetings with a gut wrenching feeling about what the proposed request is going to do their neighborhood.  Inevitably, the word, “mitigation,” comes up.  What is it about the rezoning that you don’t like?  What is it that can be done to mitigate those impacts?

At subsequent meetings discussions ensue about traffic, lighting, noise, hours of operation, offensive odors, etc.  One-by-one the impacts are mitigated. Don’t like the lighting? No problem, we will install parking lot lights that direct the light straight down.  Concerned about dumpsters?  No problem, we will ensure that the dumpsters are only emptied once a week at a that is convenient to you.  Can’t stand the odor of hamburgers cooking?  We have that covered by ensuring that our restaurants won’t have fryers or grills.  Concerned about traffic? We can handle that too by widening the road and adding traffic lights.

One-by-one the checkboxes are ticked off and all the concerns are mitigated.

Pause a moment and think about this statement.  One-by-one the checkboxes are ticked off and all the concerns are mitigated. Logic dictates that if all the concerns are mitigated, then the rezoning request should be approved.

What people often don’t realize is that there remains one checkbox that is frequently overlooked: the change to the character of an area.  Yes, all the minutiae has been addressed.  But in the end, growth and development is all about change. Sometimes the change to the character of an area is minor or at least acceptable – as long as the individual concerns have been mitigated.

In other cases, the change to the character of an area is so dramatic that people cannot accept it even though the individual concerns have been mitigated.

Ken Bowers distilled peoples’ concerns down to two issues: traffic and character.  I distill those concerns even further to just character.  Yes, we can widen roads, add turn lanes and traffic lights.  In some case we can even do the dramatic like construct interchanges and fly overs.  We can handle the traffic.  But, despite all of our ability to “mitigate the impacts,” what gives people that gut wrenching feeling is that some rezoning requests and proposals for growth and development forever change the character of an area.

 And forever changing the character of an area is something we should take seriously and not overlook simply because we have ticked off all the other checkboxes.