A Politician? – Taking the Plunge!

This and following posts chronicle my journey running for a seat on my Town Council.

This first post is background that led to my filing for the seat on March 1.

My Town

La Plata, Maryland, is located 30 miles south of Washington, DC, with a population of 8,753 (2010 Census). I suspect this will increase to 10,000 after the 2020 Census is released. It is also the county seat for Charles County, one of three Southern Maryland counites.

The town was incorporated in 1888 as the Pennsylvania Rail Road was granted a right of way to build a track and station. The track runs north/south through the downtown, initially for passenger service, then later to haul coal south to a power plant. There is limited use with the impending closing of the power plant.

The Town has police and zoning powers as an incorporated government. It is governed by a Town Council, consisting of a Mayor and four council members, each representing four wards. They serve 4 year terms.There is no party affiliation.

We have the usual public services funded from property taxes, with a annual differential for county taxes. Town services include police (16 officers, coordination with the Count’s Sherriff), water/sewer, trash collection (Department of Public Works), parks and recreation (no formal department) and planning/zoning (Department of Planning & Zoning). Other professional staff includes a treasurer and outside /contract attorney.

Source: Southern Maryland Independent

The Town has 72 employees.

Budget History:

Source: Town of La Plata

My Background

I moved to La Plata from Baltimore County (it wraps around Baltimore City) in 1986, to take a job as a planner with a local engineering company (perhaps an oxymoron, but that’s another whole story!). This was a homecoming, as my grandparents were born in La Plata.

After a number of job changes in Southern Maryland, I know La Plata and the larger community, and have a large network of friends, professionals, and elected officials (town, county and state). I am active in the community, serving on County boards and committees.

One job included working for the Town, from 2008 to 2014, culminating as Planning Director. So I know how the town works.

After retirement in 2019, I still have a passion for planning, and community/economic development issues. I looked for opportunities to stay engaged and contribute my experiences.

One opportunity was a part-time Community Grant writer position (20 hours/week) with the Town . This later changed to supporting the re-start of the downtown development corporation (which I help to start in 2010). This position has not been filled, delayed until after the May election, because there could be three new council members.

The Catalyst

I ‘ve maintained contact with the town (Council and staff), attending their virtual Council meetings, providing relevant information, and testimony at public hearings (Comprehensive Plan adoption, annexations and Zoning Ordinance amendments).

In early February, a council member called, asking if I had considered filing for her Council seat, since she was not running . I had considered running four years ago, but my former employer didn’t support it. So I just moved on.

I was surprised and somewhat intrigued. At her suggestion, the mayor and I talked several times. he provided her thoughts and I asked many questions – who else would run, the cost and time of a campaign, town issues, her concerns and goals for the next term.

I talked to my wife and spend a couple of weeks researching and weighing the pros and cons, prior to the March 1 filing deadline.

The Pros

  • I know the Town and how it runs; know current Town Council and staff
  • A 35 year La Plata resident
  • Experience in planning, community/economic development issues and policies
  • Experience and extensive network in the Town and County; worked with elected leadership at Town, County and State (State Senators/Delegates to the Maryland General Assembly).
  • Good reputation
  • Opportunity to give back, contribute to my community, consistent with my history of community engagement and service (US Army, Army National Guard)

The Cons:

  • Feeding my ego? Wow, I’m a Councilman! Look at me!
  • I know it all, have all the answers.
  • Do I really understand what I am signing up for? It won’t always be easy. Confronted at the grocery store by residents?!
  • Do I have a thick skin ? There will be criticism. My vote will irritate someone.
  • Can I still maintain my values and integrity?

My Decision

After weighing all this , I filed the required paperwork on February 22.

The Why

This is my elevator pitch, still a work in progress:

I am running for Town Council because as a city planner, by education and working in the profession, I know and understand the impact of growth and development.

La Plata is at the confluence of COVID-19 and the long-term implications from a flurry of recent development activity – several residential annexation requests and the start of Heritage Green (annexed in 1990) that will have significant impacts on the community.

The new Comprehensive Plan (Comp Plan) was adopted in September 2020. To be effective, the plan needs implementation. This must be THE policy document, and strategic framework, guiding all decisions, not gathering dust on the shelf.

The Town has a Capital Improvement (CIP), an effective implementation tool, using the Town’s fiscal budget to fund needed projects identified in the Comp Plan – road improvements, water/sewer, sidewalks, parks/recreation, and downtown reinvestment ( become a full Main Street member).

Another implementation tool is the Zoning Ordinance. Major changes have been made and are still underway. But additional changes are needed, given the adoption of the new Comp Plan, significant changes in the community, new planning techniques, and thinking about how places grow and develop. This is urgently needed in response to development pressures and COVID-19.

I then want to bring my experiences, perspectives, and passion to this discussion and decision-making process to continue La Plata’s progress.

This is also an opportunity to serve and give back to La Plata, my home since 1986.

Next Post – The Results of the March 15th Primary

Source: DCist/WAMU / Dominique Maria Bonessi

It’s More Than School Seats

Recent changes to how my county’s allocates school seats for residential projects has stirred up much controversary. This highlights that development impact is complex and more than just about schools. It’s about the larger issue of development – its pace, location, required infrastructure, economic development , affordable housing, and how to pay for it all.

In totality what does this mean? What are facts/information about growth/development and it’s impact on the County? There is never a clear and simple answer.

Source: WilliamsonSource, July 2015


The County Commissioners, after meeting with the elected School Board approved major changes to the School Allocation policy. This review was initiated by the County’s Economic Development Department (EDD) at the request of a developer of a mixed-use project (residential and commercial uses). The suggested changes would allow more school seats so residential development can move forward quicker rather than wait in line longer.

The County’s school allocation policy has been in place for over ten years, dividing the community, with little discussion and opportunity for compromise.

The Arguments

School board members, the staff, and parents argue that relaxing the allocation allowing more houses, will overburden already crowded schools. The is not unexpected, since good schools ( i.e. – no portable classrooms/trailers) is a major factor when buying a home. With more homes, there is more traffic, adding to road congestion and longer work commuting times.

Several County Commissioners echoed the same opposing points, but went further stating “we don’t need more houses”.

The development and real estate community, supported the revised allocation policy, allowing more housing and shortening wait times to obtain school allocation approvals, needed before building permit approval. This could then fill the ongoing demand for affordable housing. Jobs will be created and tax revenues will increase, needed to support required infrastructure – roads, water/sewer and more schools.

It’s Not What it Seems

These illustrate a lack of real understanding about the complexity of growth, how they are interconnected, and the need for better dialogue to reach fact-based decisions.

An example helps. The County just recently and proudly announced that Kaiser Permanente will build a new medical campus, generating+-100 jobs. This is a good thing. This could perhaps help to reduce out commuting (65% of the County workforce), while generating a positive fiscal impact – more revenue than the cost of providing services, because non-residential uses don’t generate kids. School construction accounts for over 50 % of the County’s budget.

Image result for Kaiser Permanente Medical office buildings charles county
Source: Kaiser Permanente

Opposition to relaxing the school seat allocation policy, allowing for more housing is really no growth for the sake of preserving school quality and capacity. This is a not necessarily a surprise since quality public education is the function of the county board of education and expected by residents.


Is this the classic NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) versus YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) dilemma? For me – no!

It’s about balancing competing interests, using facts and existing policies to have informed discussions to reach a consensus on this important issue but difficult decision.

AP Photo/Noah Berger

It is about looking beyond just the schools and looking at the larger picture -the unintended consequence’s. Yes, we might have better schools, but at what price if people can’t buy afford to buy a house, rent an apartment, and reduces housing choice.

This is probably a pipe dream, given the current state of our civic discourse. But quality schools, and development impacts has and is a significant issue for my and many other places. The pandemic has exposed this and our ability to fix problems.

We need to come together and get on with fixing stuff, sooner than later!

The 15 Minute Neighborhood – Back Again

The 15-minute neighborhood is not necessarily a new concept. It has been around for quite a while, with different names or definitions.

What is it?

It is really nothing more than being able to do daily tasks within your neighborhood by either walking or riding a bike. Instead of driving to food shop, 15-minute neighborhoods support the idea of walking, riding a bike or if accessible and easy, use transit. In a more perfect world, we could perhaps walk or ride a bike to work versus getting in our cars and commuting long distances. But we have long history of planned for cars versus people.

Source: C40 Cities httpshttps://www.c40.org/about:

This is not a new idea,  based on previous work by American planner Clarence Perry –  the 1900’s – the “neighborhood unit”. A later, but perhaps a more well-known advocate was Jane Jacobs and her landmark book – The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

A more recent advocate is Carlos Moreno, Scientific Director, Pantheon Sorbonne University, Paris. A recent TED Talk summarizes his thoughts.

Below is how Paris envisions their 15 minute neighborhood.

Source: The Alternative UK

So why now?

The pandemic has accelerated the desire for functional and human scale cities, towns and neighborhoods., This is evidenced by the significant increases in the designation of open/car free streets, and increases in biking and use of parks/recreation areas.

Where is this done?

Other places pursuing this include:

Melbourne, which adopted a long-term strategic plan for 20-minute neighborhoods

Detroit, which organized a 20-minute-city concept around its defunct streetcar grid

Portland, whose Complete Neighborhood concept plans for 90% of the city to have “safe and convenient access to the goods and services needed in daily life”

Ottawa, which launched a 15-minute-neighbourhood plan to have residents take half their trips by foot, bicycle, public transit or by carpooling.

C40 Cities, a city-led coalition focused on fighting climate change, elevated the 15-minute city idea as a blueprint for post-Covid economic recovery

Source: What is a 15 Minute City? City Monitor, September 21, 2020

Source: Place Northwest , December 2020

Can it Work in Smaller Places?!

Cities with higher density (those referred above and others) have a built in advantage for this concept . These also may have robust transit options as well. But still the challenge will be to overcome car centric planning, with its attendant sprawl and low density , particularly in the US.

There is a new app Do You Live in a “15 Minute City? that “lets you check whether an address meets the criteria for such a city. Input an address, and see whether you can access medical care, grocery stores, cultural attractions, transit stops, education facilities and leisure spots within 15 or 20 minutes of walking. In its current iteration, the map is focused on the United States. ”

I first used the app, with my home address, a single family neighborhood, with 1+ acre lots. The results – “Not quite there yet” . There is limited opportunity to walk 15 minutes to the grocery store, medical office and cultural facilities , medical, education or leisure activities. Expansion to a 20 minute walk does provide access to a neighborhood park. This is contrasted by driving 15 minutes that provides easy access to all necessary places for daily living.

I then tried my Town, La Plata, Maryland and easy meet the criteria for a 15 minute city – walking to all places needed for daily living.

Residential units in downtown La Plata is somewhat limited, but this is encouraging by demonstrating that additional residential housing are needed and could be accommodated with more mixed use projects (first floor commercial office/ upper floors residential) and increases densities, consistent with the town.

What’s Next?!

Here is a list of “rules to create a 15- minute neighborhood that could be applied to your community:

Bring back the neighborhood school.

Make sure food and basic necessities are available locally.

Third Places come in all shapes and sizes

House enough people, and all kinds of people

Density isn’t enough

Sweat the small stuff for true walkability

Know when to get out of the way

Source: Strong Towns

The Ask

  1. Apply the 15-Minute Neighborhood app to your place
  2. What are the results and what does it mean?
  3. Research your zoning and development rules to determine how can you change your neighborhood
  4. Actively engage in your community – talk to your local elected officials, participate in their meetings, work sessions; participate in planning commission and related meetings and hearings.

Further Reading:

The 15-Minute City—No Cars Required—Is Urban Planning’s New Utopia

Can This App Tell You If You Live in a ’15 Minute Neighborhood’?

7 Rules for Creating “15-Minute Neighborhoods”

How to build back better with a 15-minute city

Fiscal Sustainability


My May 17, 2020 blog post ( Paying for Stuff We Use) talked about how communities pay for the services provided to their citizens, primarily through property taxes – the assessed value of different land uses. There was further discussion and references to different processe that may generate more revenue, not by land uses, but by calculating the value per acre.

Value per Acre Analysis

This analysis is detailed in Value Per Acre Analysis: A How-To For Beginners, using property information – size, ownership, zoning, assessed value, and taxes paid. This information is usually available from the local (town or county) tax assessment office.

This information can then be mapped, using Geographic Information System (GIS) or Googele Earth.

Source: Strong Towns https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/10/19/value-per-acre-analysis-a-how-to-for-beginners

To illustrate the the impact of this method, the following example compared two existing commercial properties – a large “big box” store versus a smaller “mixed use “use site ( commercial uses on the first floor, with residential above).

In addition to calculating value per acre, there are two other key findings – taxes paid by each property owner and employees for each use.

Refer to the following chart to really see the major implications of this new analysis and the impact on a commuity’s budget and fiscal sustainabilty :

Source: Urban3 and Strong Towns

Source: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/5/10/highest-return-on-investment-city-not-where-you-think

So What!

This clearly puunches holes in the long held belief that large commercial uses generate more tax revenues than smaller parcels. Communites have then continually engaged in attracting larger commercial uses, not fully understanding the real fiscal implications.

Large commercial boxes, malls and shopping centers (bricks and mortor) have been in decline for many years, now accelerating due to the pandemic and the resulting shift to online shopping.

The Transformation of the American Shopping Mall | Innovation | Smithsonian  Magazine
Source: Smithsonian Magazine

This also wastes valuable land, with their huge and unneeded paved parking lots. As a result, malls are undergoing a rapid transformation to other productive uses – affordable housing, recreation centers, medical facilities and other mixed uses.

When stores close (i.e. JC Penny, Sears!) then malls decline and become eyesores.

A vlaue per acres analysis provides an opportunity to

“…to make sure that its land use is productive: that is, that the activity taking place on that city’s land is creating enough wealth to support the infrastructure and services needed for that place to continue to exist and thrive.”

Source: Strong Towns

This really a Return on Investment (ROI) anaylsis for communities to understand the long term fiscall impacts from proposed development projects, annexations and re-zoning. Do they actually provide revenues, now and in the future? Will the community be fiscal sustainable?


Here are examples how some communities have analyzed their current and future land uses, comp plan polcies to determine the impact on curernt and future revenues and budgets and how they align with their development policies:

  1. Bastrop, Texas – Establish fiscal sustainability as a critical metric for growth management, development character and budgeting
  2. Brownsville,Texas – Develop fiscal baseline for the city, understand how and where to invest resources to close their funding gap, and prioritize economic development incentive (TIRZ) opportunities that support the City’s goal to revitalize the core downtown
  3. Pflugerville, Texas – Build alignment within Council, expand the conversation around density and mixed-use development, plan for future infrastructure obligations, and maximize value capture of key development sites in a fast growth suburb.

The key takeaway from this analyis:

“…a city can help close its funding gap through adjusting its development pattern, potentially without raising taxes. Our objective is to provide information and new perspective so that city leaders can align their development and service model with what citizens are willing and able to pay for – now and in the future.”

Source: Kevin Shepherd, Verdunity CEO & Project Principal

So What’s Next

While I believe more communities need to do this kind of analysis, my concern is twofold. – why isn’t this being done by other places and how to start and move past the entrenched status quo and try this?

The key issue – if this is needed and provides a path to fiscal sustainability, how can a community actually implement this?

End Single Family Zoning Or Not?

Housing and zoning continue to be hotly debated issues, given the recent passage of Portland’s landmark houising initiative. This follows efforts by other states and cities to allow other housing types in single-family zones.

Some Background

This post builds on two previous ones – Housing Reform Continues and Zoning Reform Continued, Now Add Housing.

Changing single-famiy zoning is seen as a way to increase housing supply to lower prices and provide greater housing choices. The other primary motivation is to end racial and economic discrimination. Single family zoning is seen as a major enabler for these policies.

Pushback has centered on disruption and incompatabilty with the existing neiegorhoods, increased density and traffic, reduction of parking availability, and reduction of property values. Some pundits would argue that racial discrimintaiton is still the real reason for opposition to change.

The city of Minneappaolis amended their zoning ordinance in 2019, allowing duplex and triplex housing in all single family zoned areas. As of September 2020, building permits for this housing type totalled three (3), (Triplex building permits requested in Minneapolis this year: 3), a less than expected result. One can argue that addtional time is neeed for developer’s to react and then build these units. Others argue that reduction of mininal building height, land lot width and depth requirements are needed.

There is then contunued discussion in the planning profession to support or opposse removal of single family zoning.

Photo by Binyamin Mellish on Pexels.com

Time to Rethink?!

This is a review of a February 2020 article Is it time to end single-family zoning? Eric Jaffe, Side Walk Talk, Medium. The author writes about:

“14 total planning voices, taking up the question of whether or not single-family zoning’s time has come — and, if so, what to do about it.”

Eric Jaffe, Side Walk Talk, Medium

Reasons to change single- family zoning are summarized first, followed by counter arguements and my commentary.

Why Change single -family zoning:

People can still build single-family homes – Changing the zoning allows other types of houses, in addition to single-family or detached houses.

Communities can still prevent Manhattanization – there is fear that allowing more houses will result in greater density, like New York (Manhattanization). This cna be prevented with height restrictions, consistent with each commuity or neighborhood and market conditions.

The missing middle can unlock affordability -differnt housing types – towhouse, duplexes, and the like, offer buyers a choice and greater opporttunity (affordabilty) to buy a house.

Upzoning won’t necessarily spoil housing investments – One planning scholar argues it’s not the role of planning to maintain or enhance property values. I believe this is a part of the larger issue of racial and ecomonic inequity. Providing housing diversity (change the zoning) is needed but, needs to be fitted to the conditions of each community.

Existing tenants can be protected – this means not displacing existing residents in the neighborhood (gentrification). This a very real problem, particularly for renters. There is no easy solution, other than paying attention to the community, providing other programs to maintain neighborhood cohesivenees. This must be balanced with the need for addtional housing.

Infrastructure strains can be managed – traffic, parking and open space are the infrastrucure most affected. Reducing parking requirements is a growing technique in many communities. Transportation alternatives – transit, bus, ride-sharing and biking may also offer solutions, but is a locational issue. New design tehniques can aso perhaps reduce infrastructure demands. The shift to working from home can reduce car depedency, while shopping and other needs could met within the neighborhood, thus encouraging walking. There is the greater demand on infrastructure when development is pushed farther from the denser core areas.

Middle Housing

Counterpoints and Commentary

Minneapolis shows the path forward – the city did it’s homework , knowing the impact that restrictive housing had on minorities. The new city zoning ordinance then “allowed” three residential units on all parcels and multi-family units “by right” near transit hubs.

Incremental change is wiser – The writer cites Sydney, Austraila that developed a “modified set of rules in areas that are already suitable for greater density.” This seems to be perhpas less controversial and confrontational process.

Political capital is better spent elsewhere – One scholar argues “that tackling single-family zoning will require enormous amounts of political capital that could better be deployed elsewhere, such as targeted affordability programs. ” I would agree that zoning change is a long process, but the success of afforfabilty programs is dubious at best. The same scholar does argue for a more measured approach, rather than ending singe-family zoning. This is similar to the incremental approach.

Focus on undeveloped areas – this is applies to infill or vacant properties in existing communities, linked to inclusionary/performance based zoning and housing mandates.

Ethics demand a change – The American Institute of Certified Planners (I have this designation) has a Code of Ethics that states “We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration.”

What’s needed most are new housing models – for me, this is THE critical need, regardless if zoning is changed or not. It must model the life cycle housing shown on the graphic below.

” This new model must encourage middle- and low-income housing, give these households access to good schools and jobs, and provide pathways for them to catch-up on the generations of wealth-creation they’ve missed out on.

Harley F. Etienne, University of Michigan
City of Grand Rapids, MI

What’s Next?

The housing crisis will continue, impacted by the pandemic. The outcome is unknown given current record low interest rates, and contiuned demand. This is offset by increased prices due to a shortage of available existing houses and not enough being built. The push for new housing will then continue and with it advocacy to change zoning. Stay tuned for more in later posts.

Housing Reform Continues

The two articles below highlight new milestone legislation, continuing housing reform.

The first is a Massachusetts law to stop exclusionary practices, The second is a Portland Oregon change to the city’s zoning ordinance.

Both approaches were discussed in my August 2 Post Zoning Reform Continued, Now Add Housing.

Massachusetts Strikes a Blow Against Exclusionary Zoning

SHELTERFORCE, Randy Shaw, August 12, 2010

The state is expected to pass and enact a new law to end exclusionary zoning by enabling local governments to pass rezoning changes by a simple majority rather than a two-thirds super majority vote. Many communities only permit other than single family housing through a zoning change or exception. A two year study, released in 2019, documents this process restricts housing choice, diversity, while raising prices. With an expected passage in September, the law is a major shift to stop exclusionary processes, allowing for more housing and options.

“For too long many [Massachusetts] cities and towns have used the supermajority rule as a tool of racist exclusion to protect exclusionary local zoning and perpetuate modern redlining.

Jesse Kanson-Benanav, Abundant Housing MA

Major lessons learned include:

  1. Voters are Pro-Housing – the article cite recent changes in Cambridge, Newton in the state, but also Boulder and Minneapolis. This is seen as a major shift that will be sustained. While I agree there is progress, there seems to be little desire in my town and county to really confront the the obvious affordability and diversity issues here. My sense is this is due a general lack vision and progressive thinking, lack of resources and technical expertise to take meaningful actions. This is not willful, but just going with the flow mentality.
  2. Activists Must End State Barriers – There needs to be sustained and coordinated actions by pro-housing groups to force changes to the regulations and other policies that are barriers to need housing, This has resulted in changes in Colorado, Oregon, Texas and Washington. In Maryland, housing reform legislation was introduced during the 2020 session, but failed because lack of full support and COVID-19. I suspect it may be re-introduced, but will have to complete with budget cuts and related pandemic issues. Activists in Maryland include Maryland Affordable Housing Coalition, Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, and Community Development Network of Maryland.
  3. Governor Support is Key to Passing Housing Choice For any public policy initiative political leadership is essential and the author provides positive examples – Massachusetts, and Washington State governors. This is countered by neutral leadership – California and New York, These are surprising, given California’s infamous high housing prices and the New York – governor’s past job as Housing and Community Development Secretary. Maryland’s current leadership is lukewarm at best about housing and perhaps may not change two years left on a second term,but countered by an active General Assembly.


Sightline Institute , Micheal Anderson, August 11, 2020

The passage of this was the culmination of a six year effort to change the city’s housing affordability and availability. The ordinance allows four to six homes on any lot if half are available to low income residents. In addition, the law removes all parking mandates in 75% of the city’s residential land. The graphic below provides a visual of the new law and impact on needed “middle housing”

Sightline Institute, August, 2020

This effort builds on previous reform efforts from Minneapolis, Austin, and Vancouver, Oregon state. The city’s Residential Infill Project provided the institutional expertise. This also counters major opposition by demonstrating increased density and different housing can be integrated into existing neighborhoods.

It is striking to note the success of this process mirrors the lessons learned from Masscuasetts:

  1. There was a support from citizens to overcome long term resistance to change. This initiative was started by a “local micro developer“. At the public hearings “pro-housing testimony outnumbered anti-housing testimony more than six to one.”
  2. There was also a robust and vocal collaboration by local community housing activists – Hacienda Community Development, the Cully Housing Action Team, Sunrise PDX, amd other state organizations AARP Oregon, the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, Oregon Walks, 1000 Friends of Oregon.
  3. Political leadership was provided by the Mayor and City Council members. Prior Oregon state housing reform legislation also provided both political and policy support.

An important quote many communities ( including where I live) need to consider:

It shouldn’t take six years for any city to agree to give itself permission to build the sort of homes that every city once allowed.

The technical issue here, over enforcement of a provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, isn’t massively important to the number or price of homes that get built.

So-called “missing middle” housing options like triplexes, courtyard apartments and cottages aren’t radical or even unfamiliar. They’re just scarce—because they’ve been largely banned from cities across Cascadia and the rest of the US and Canada. In Portland, the bans began in 1924 and expanded almost citywide in 1959. Almost every city in either country that’s existed for more than a century has a similar story.

The technical issue here, over enforcement of a provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, isn’t massively important to the number or price of homes that get built.

What matters more is a battle of big ideas. Is it good to have a diversity of housing types and prices in every neighborhood? Or is it bad?

Sightline, Michael Anderson

I believe it is good to have this big idea – housing diversity and affordability! I hope my county and town embrace these “big ideas”!

It is especially relevant now as my town adopts a new Comprehensive Plan, and an opportunity to also update the current antiquated zoning ordinance. A further urgency is review of three large residential annexation requests, proposing over 6,600 dwelling units.

The challenge is can or will our political leadership support the needed housing reforms discussed here?! Many examples and best practices are available for us to at a minimum start!

Source: Centre County Housing Trust

Comprehensive (Comp) Plan Revisited

This is an update to my second post (Tips To Avoid Failure In Comprehensive Plans) now that my town is ready to adopt their updated 2020 Comp Plan.

Full Disclosure

This is written from two perspectives, first as the Town Planning Director from 2011-2014, after being on the town staff since 2008, working on downtown revitalization implementation. This gave me the opportunity to assist the previous planning director on the 2008 update.

The second perspective is as a citizen, town resident, with many years of planning/community experience at the town, regional and state levels.

The Process

In Maryland, each county and municipal comp plan must have specific elements and must be updated every ten years.

The town initiated the update process with a Kick off meeting , asking attendees to participate in a series of exercises :

1. Branding Exercise

2. Live/Work Map

3. Opportunities VS Challenges Exercise

4. Objectives and Principles Exercise

5. Survey

6. Evaluation

The results were then complied and posted on separate Comp Plan page on the Town’s website.

Next a Request of Interest (RFI) was posted, requesting firms to submit a statement of their services and interest in this project. Interested firms attended Q&A session with the Planning staff to clarify the scope of services and answer questions. As a result, a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) was posted. Ten consultant firms submitted proposals. This was a significant change from the 2008 update, done by in-house planning staff, with assistance from the other departments.

Using a scoring system, the staff rated the proposals and made a recommendation to the Planning Commission. They in turn endorsed the staff recommendation to the Town Council. This selection was approved and the selected firm received a notice to proceed in December 2018.

The process officially started in July with evening listening sessions, ending in October, 2018. The public provided input about key elements of the plan, to include Municipal Growth, Downtown Development, Transportation and Economic Development. The results were then posted on the Comp Plan website.

A Steering Committee of citizens ( I was a member), business owner,s major employers (local hospital, Board of Education, fuel distributor) and representatives from County staff (Planning, Economic Development – appropriate as the town is the County seat and a major employer) was formed and met to review the initial draft on the new Plan . Comments and feedback were provided resulting in two revised drafts – August 2019 and January 2020.

The January 2020 draft was then submitted for a required 60 day review period tothe State and the County, as required y law. Their respective comments were then incorporated into a May 2020 revised draft and then presented to the Planning Commission for their review. They held a virtual public hearing on July 7, due to COVID-19. The Plan was recommended for approval to the Town Council. Interesting to note there were no speakers signed up to testify and the Planning Commission denied a request to keep the public record open for an additional week.

The recommended 2020 Plan will be introduced to the Town Council, the final approval authority (5 members – the Mayor and 4 Council persons, all part-time), on August 24, with a public hearing (virtual) scheduled for September 14.

Source: City of Titusville, FL.

My Thoughts

Stuff beyond control

When the update process started, no one could have anticipated the COVID pandemic, much less the devastating impact on the Town’s staff and their workflow. The Town Hall is stilled closed and the staff like, many others, had to adjust the working remotely.

The good news (if there was any!) was that the update process was well underway, with most of the public outreach completed. So when the pandemic really hit, the staff and consultant were in the writing phase.

The downside was lack of public participation at the July Planning Commission hearing, This is understandable, but see the Not so Good comments.

The Good.

The revised plan was prepared by a consulting firm. Nothing against the staff, but having an outside perspective provides needed objectivity while adding planning/best practices from other communities.

Good use of listening sessions prior to actual writing of the plan,providing an opportunity for community input and perspectives while educating the staff and consultant team about the community – their needs, desires and concerns. They got to know the community better.

The Steering Committee meetings were also a good and a needed technique to hear community reaction to the initial draft Plan. The staff and consultants then heard directly from major stakeholders about recommendations and needed revisions.

The Planning staff is much improved, professional and better organized from previous 2008 update process (that includes me!). They had more knowledge and were better focused in organizing and executing the process. This includes organizing the listening sessions, the Steering Committee, managing the consultant contract, effective incorporation of comments into the draft Plan and finally leading the Planning Commission through the process. They are to be commended for their work, made that much harder due to COVID.

The Not So Good

Any plan is a snapshot in time, not in control of events, dated the day after approval. As the 2020 plan moves to certain adoption, the Town is at the confluence of events beyond their control – the long term implications of the pandemic and a flurry of development activity. This includes possible construction start of a 30 year old residential annexation project with 3,200 units at build out (10 years?). Next are two new annexation requests, the first a 800 acre parcel with over 3,000 units, with a 20-30 year build out and a smaller one (175 residential units).

While no plan can anticipate the future in precise terms, my concern is the new Plan lacks a real vision of what the Town can be. Do they want to be just another “anywhere USA” or a unique place, protecting their values, history and environment?! This is not advocating for NOT IN MY BACKYARD (NIMBY) or the opposite (YES IN MY BACKYARD – YIMBY), but a place with standards and a regulatory process protecting the community’s character. There should a be response other than just accepting the way it’s always been, the status quo, given bad past practices – strip commercial centers along the major highways, at the expense of downtown businesses, lack of sidewalks, lack of housing diversity and affordability.

While the public participation process was a significant improvement over the 2008 update, it was still somewhat limited – we have to do it, so let’s get it over with. Yes, there were listening sessions and a Steering Committee, but once they stopped meeting, there was no outreach until the announcement of the Planning Commission public hearing. This results is a top down plan, written by consultant, but not necessarily really reflecting citizen wants and needs. While the pandemic certainly was a key factor in limited attendance at the July 2020 Planning Commission hearing, the required public hearing legal notice was delayed by the local paper and as a result, was eventually posted in a much larger metro paper. In addition, a request to keep the public record open for an additional week for comments was denied by the Planning Commission.

Many other communities, including smaller ones, are leveraging GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technology . Social media is also is used as well. This results in a more robust, continuous and interactive public participation process. This can also be used for multiple processes from budget review to simple polls to know and understand the pulse of the community.

A Comp Plan is not effective if there is no implementation. It must be THE policy document guiding all decisions, not gathering dust on the shelf. A Capital Improvement (CIP) is an effective implementation tool, using the budget to plan needed projects identified in the Comp Plan – road improvements, water/sewer, sidewalks, parks/recreation.

The Town initiated a CIP two years ago, during their annual January retreat in advance of the fiscal year (FY, starting July 1, ending June 30) budget. While a good start, the 2020 Comp Plan provides an opportunity to refine and further synchronize the current CIP, reflecting its policies and recommendations.

Another implementation tool is the Zoning Ordinance. The current ordinance is dated and a patchwork of various changes over the years. There were major changes over the past two years. While perhaps needed and at the time some urgency for amendment, the zoning is again dated and out of syn with adoption of the new Plan. It doesn’t reflect the significant changes in the community, new planning techniques and thinking about how places grow and develop. This is urgently needed in response to COVID-19.

What’s Next?

The Town Council pubic virtual hearing is September 14. I will testify and provide a detailed comment letter for the record. This will include my observations here and specific comments, with page references. I will urge the Council to keep the record open for more public comments. This is too important, the stakes too high to close the record and then vote to approve.

I will report back what happened.

Alexandra Kukulka / Post-Tribune, December 2019

Vision Zero

One positive benefit from COVID-19 has been the significant drop in vehicle miles of travel (VMT) – less cars on the highways. This is primarily the result of people working from home (WFH) and sheltering in place.

But Wait!

One would have assumed that with reduced cars on the road, there should then be a reduction in traffic deaths. Sadly, a wrong assumption.

Traffic deaths have increased :

“U.S. traffic fatality rate jumped 23.5% in May, compared to the year prior, despite the number of vehicle miles driven in that month dropping 25.5% amid pandemic-related stay-at-home orders.”

National Safety Council (NSC)

Why has this happened?! It is too soon, without additional data to draw specific conclusions yet. However, I notice significant speeding on roads where I live, including local neighborhood streets , with a speed limit of 25 MPH. This is generally consistent with the Governors Highway Safety Association, part of the National Safety Council stating:

…speed is another “dramatic problem” contributing to the increased traffic fatality rate, especially as drivers take advantage of open roads. An estimated one-third of all traffic crashes are due to speed, yet we’ve never given it the priority that it really deserves … because everyone speeds. We all do it, we’re all guilty of it and there’s never been public support, or really doing anything serious about it.”

Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA)

But for pedestrians and cyclists (the other transportation users) , this is a continuing trend – decrease in vehicle accidents, but increase in pedestrian deaths. Note this data is prior to the COVID-19, so there are likely more walkers and cyclists out there.

Washington Post, Charlie Riedel/AP

1. More walking has increased exposure, as one survey1 estimated that the number of Americans walking to work in the past week increased about four percent between 2007 and 2016;

2. Most pedestrian fatalities take place on local roads, at night, away from intersections, suggesting the need for safer road crossings. Over the past 10 years, nighttime crashes accounted for more than 90 percent of the total increase in pedestrian deaths;

3. Many unsafe driving behaviors, such as speeding, distracted and drowsy driving, pose risks to pedestrians, and alcohol impairment by the driver and/or pedestrian was reported in about half of traffic crashes that resulted in pedestrian fatalities in 2017; and

4. Finally, the number of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) involved in pedestrian deaths has increased by 50 percent since 2013. By comparison, (non-SUV) passenger cars’ involvement in pedestrian fatalities increased by 30 percent over the same time period. Although passenger cars still account for the majority of pedestrian deaths, SUVs – which generally cause more severe pedestrian injuries – make up an increasingly large percentage of registered vehicles.

Governors Highway Safety Association
Numbers of U.S. Traffic Deaths in 2008 and 2017, Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State, 2018


I speed at times as well, but now much more aware because I am a walker and cyclist. It is also personal, as a friend of mine, an avid cyclist, was hit by a car on a two lane rural highway. He did all the rights things – on the highway shoulder, riding with the traffic. Thank goodness he survived and is making a steady recovery. The driver was charged with reckless driving, passing a car, then over correcting and never saw my friend on his bike, in broad daylight.

A Response

Vision Zero, a concept started in Sweden in 1997 –

“…takes a systems approach to enhancing safety. Rather than exclusively faulting drivers and other users of the transportation system, Vision Zero places the core responsibility for accidents on the overall system design, addressing infrastructure design, vehicle technology, and enforcement.

Center for Active Design

This has migrated around the world, including the US, through the Vision Zero Network.

A New Vision for Safety

Communities then need to commit to the following actions:

» Building and sustaining leadership, collaboration, and accountability – especially among a diverse group of stakeholders to include transportation professionals, policymakers, public health officials, police, and community members;
» Collecting, analyzing, and using data to understand trends and potential disproportionate impacts of traffic deaths on certain populations;
» Prioritizing equity and community engagement;
» Managing speed to safe levels; and
» Setting a timeline to achieve zero traffic deaths and serious injuries, which brings urgency and accountability, and ensuring transparency on progress and challenges.

Vision Zero Network

While some cities and communities have adopted Vision Zero as policy, actual progress (reduction of accidents and fatalities) has been slow in the US, in contrast to other countries, for example Denmark:

Road deaths in Oslo (pop. 673.000) in 2019:

Pedestrians: 0
Cyclists: 0
Children: 0

The graph shows the reduction of road deaths there since 1975.

So why is the US so far behind, even with reduced traffic from COVID-19? A January 2020 Strong Towns post provide some reasons, given our placed based politics and how our communities have developed. Recommendations were provided for the long way forward.

The Why:

So Vision Zero as a design problem is just this: eliminate all instances where a driver could hit a pedestrian at a speed greater than 15 to 20 mph, even if one or both parties make a mistake.

This means in places where people will be out and about (i.e. streets), cars and trucks must either be kept out entirely, or must not travel faster than 20 miles per hour.

It’s a simple rule. No cars moving fast enough to kill a person in places where people are going to be. No people in the (rare) places where we allow cars to move fast enough to kill a person. That’s it. It’s not, at its core, about enforcement, or clever design, or better signage, or even better, more attentive, more conscientious humans. It’s about speed. Speed is what kills.

When you think about what would actually have to change in American cities in order to achieve that change in our travel speeds, that’s where it gets messy, though. Vision Zero is a simple engineering problem, but a wickedly complex social and institutional problem.

Holistic institutional and cultural changes:

An emphasis on allowing (and rebuilding) complete neighborhoods where you can meet many needs within a 15-minute walk, and cars (where they’re present) move slowly and defer to people on foot.

Connecting those complete communities to each other by high-speed roads and/or public transit.

Creating alternatives to driving, and unlocking the strength in numbers that pedestrians enjoy when walking is a mainstream activity (29% of Oslo residents walk to work, just shy of the 34% who drive).

Recognizing that bike and pedestrian infrastructure comprises many of the highest-returning investments a local government can make.

Eliminate things like free parking in busy areas, which induces extra car trips.

Enforcement where needed to deal with the minority of true scofflaw speeders. (Oslo has markedly strict penalties for reckless driving.)

Traffic calming to turn stroads into slow, safe urban streets.

Strong Towns

These are ambitious changes that will require persistence, leadership (political and community and from the bottom up), money and a comprehensive perspective. This not all about design, but really about lowering speeds on roads, accommodating total transportation needs – walking, cycling.

These changes are beginning to happen in larger urban areas (i.e. New York, Barcelona, Bogota, Milan and others) but will continue to be a major challenge in all communities.

My community (population of 10,000), typifies these challenges – reactive rather than proactive planning,road design for moving traffic (vehicles) rather than for all users and lack of leadership and funding.

This needs to happen to improve our quality of life and the environment. I am hopeful my community and others will embrace and become advocates for these needed changes to improve our quality of life and the environment.

Zoning Reform Continued, Now Add Housing

Last’s week post talked about needed zoning reform , exposed by the current pandemic. Zoning reform started at various places around the country with some success but still has a long way to go.

There continues to be ongoing controversy about this, linked to the long standing issues of affordable housing and economic segregation – specifically, the dominance of only single family housing in communities. If you analyze your zoning map and ordinance, you will be surprised by this dominance. See my July 12 post and the referenced analysis of urban areas by the New York Times ( June 2019, Cities Start to Question an American Ideal: A House With a Yard on Every Lot ).

Reform Efforts

This has included “upzoning” – the removal of single family zoning, allowing increased density (units/acre) with other housing types – townhouse, duplexes, cottages and the like. See the images below:


The intent is to add to the housing supply (and variety), reducing their cost. Minneapolis and Oregon were successful in changing their respective zoning laws and requirements. Other places failed in their reform attempts, but likely will try again – Maryland, Virginia and California, the most prominent. This more radical reform has been equated to YIMBY – Yes in My Backyard.


As expected, there has been and will be continued opposition (loosely linked to NIMBY (Not in My Backyard), that increased density and other housing types change the character of the neighborhood, lower property values and violate the long held belief and tradition that a single family- home is the American Dream.

But there are numerous studies and facts that single- family zoning and our archaic zoning laws have contributed to racial and economic discrimination, fully exposed by the pandemic.


Win-Win Reform?

More moderate reforms are now developing, attempting to avoid the I win, you lose game. Places are communities where people live, work and play. This doesn’t have to be a zero sum contest, particularly when it’s about basic human needs – shelter and opportunity for self-support.

Want More Housing? Ending Single-Family Zoning Won’t Do It, a July 2020 Bloomberg CityLab post, argues that just prohibiting single family zoning won’t necessarily mean more affordable housing will be built. What is needed is:

more “missing middle” housing. The term refers to any low-rise construction that is denser than detached houses: backyard cottages, townhouses, small walk-up apartment buildings. In 19th and early 20th century American cities, it was the bread-and-butter of moderate-income housing. Think of Boston’s “triple deckers,” Atlanta’s midtown fourplexes and sixplexes, and Baltimore’s rowhouses.

Bloomberg CityLab

But the other needed element are the other zoning requirements that hinder housing – parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, height limits and more. One size doesn’t fit all, so these regulations should be flexible, tailored the a community’s character, culture and history.

Tweaking zoning codes doesn’t necessarily make housing construction feasible at lower price points. Leaders can’t always know what type of housing homebuilders in their locality will be able to profitably build. This depends on local demand, the existing housing stock and the milieu of regulations. That’s why reforms that appear to allow more housing to be built on paper may not result in the flexibility homebuilders actually need.

Bloomberg CityLab

“Gentle” density can save our neighborhoods A Brookings Report, offers another option, avoiding the false choice of large single family houses on large lots versus high rise towers to achieve needed densities – more housing. They argue for “gentle increases in density – such as townhouses, two-to four family homes, and small scale apartment or condominium buildings.” The post then illustrates , using Washington, DC, that this can increase housing while lowering their cost. See the chart below:

Figure 1

Three important lessons learned for other communities:

First, it is possible to add more homes in single-family neighborhoods while keeping buildings at similar scale. When viewed from the street, three adjacent townhomes or six small condos can be constructed at approximately the same height and mass as existing single-family homes.

Second, allowing smaller homes that use less land is an important way to improve affordability. .

Third, diversifying the housing stock in exclusive neighborhoods creates better access to economic opportunity.

Another moderate reform is allowing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s) by right or by meeting certain conditions – lot size, building height, parking, design. Montgomery County, Maryland, a wealthy community north and adjacent to Washington, DC,amended its zoning ordinance to allow accessory apartments, after a year along analysis and six month public engagement process. The amendment was approved in July 2019, after an acrimonious campaign by supporters and opposition groups.

What’s Next

I hope housing reform will continue and accelerate, fueled by the pandemic and the need and desire to do and be better.

This will be tested shortly in my community, a bastion of single family housing, with limited other choices, based on the familiar developer’s cry – “but there is no market for that here!”

Two large residential communities are now poised to more than double our population, (estimated at 10,000).

One was annexed into the town 30 years ago, but the owner could never obtain the financing to build. Now there is a potential contractor purchaser, the largest home builder in the country and is raring to push dirt.

The second project is a proposed annexation, that also has been around for a long time, but again, new owners, with money, now want to actually submit the annexation application.

My concern (and there are many, but here – housing) is that the town elected leadership don’t settle for the same drab, cookie cutter subdivision we always see. Rather, they should press the developers to engage the community to find out what housing we really want, need and is affordable.

I have and will continue to reach out the the mayor and town council providing relevant information, as they begin their review. I will let you know how things are going!

Alexandra Kukulka / Post-Tribune, December 2019