By Chicken Little

(We hired Chicken Little as our editorial page director after our critics said our complaints about heavy industrial zoning near homes amounts to yelling that “the sky is falling”. Chicken has been a model employee.)

“The sky is falling.”

It’s the same act all over again — just a different verse. Residents who live along Elam Road turned out in force Thursday night to persuade City Council members not to rezone a 233-acre parcel near their homes to heavy industry. And the play followed the usual script: the council members listened politely and voted unanimously for the rezoning.

It’s almost as if the council members were wired at the hips to the development community, which donates generously to some members when they run for reelection. A vote that is not unanimous is extremely rare on this council.

To their credit, city planners found a way to eliminate the most obnoxious uses in heavy a heavy industrial zone, which is like the wild west of zoning. It’s a developer’s dream. Aside from some setback requirements, you can do almost anything there.

Matt Taylor of the SEC consulting firm made an economic argument, not a planning one, for the rezoning. He said the railroad running past the tract has agreed to put a spur line in to serve the industrial development. In other words, this tract is more valuable for industrial uses than for homes.

The rezoning eliminates the most obnoxious uses possible under heavy industrial zoning — explosives, fireworks, composting, leather products, paper mills. chemical plants, petroleum and coal products refining, radioactive materials and junkyards. (I’m laughing as I type this.)

It’s hard to exclude these uses legally, but city planners came up with a way. They plan to attach a list of these uses that will be banned to a plat map for the project. The developer, who seems like a very reasonable businessman, supports the ban on these toxic uses.

It’s kind of a backflip to rectify a flaw in the zoning ordinance that I pointed out two years ago. Developers have been unable to put many benign industrial uses near homes — like the NHK automotive seat plant — without requesting heavy industry zoning. Finally the council is taking up a proposed general industrial zoning district that would be far cleaner.

The vote ignores the recommendation in the city’s comprehensive plan for light industrial in the north of the parcel and medium density residential in the southern portion, where the existing homes are.

For those of you keeping score at home, in July of 2014, the city hired the consulting firm of Kendi Keast to prepare a comprehensive plan for dealing with the next 20 years of growth, which could double the city’s population. The council vote appears to make that document a worthless piece of paper. Every developer who doesn’t like what the plan recommends will cite this decision as a precedent.

Former city manager Rob Lyons, who resigned in December 2017 while in his eighth year as city manager, told me at a 2035 pep rally that his aim for the study was to come up with some sort of binding plan like general plans in use elsewhere. They can be amended, but it takes a formal action and a public hearing to do so. This plan apparently can be brushed aside with a flick of the wrist.

Councilman Bill Shackett brushed off the controversy, saying the city’s comprehensive plan is a “living document” that is subject to constant revision.

The residents’ concerns boiled down to four issues — the size of a buffer zone, noise from  the industrial development, drainage (the area apparently has flooding problems) and traffic on Elam Road.

As usual, the council asked staff members to address these concerns, satisfying no one in the audience. They did get one sop. Normally, the city’s most stringent buffer is a whopping 20 feet — about the length of my living room. They will get what amounts to a 60-foot buffer,

Meanwhile, residents are toying with the idea of forming a permanent group to push for real planning here instead of what we are getting now. Critics would say that this council officially welcomes public participation but prefers operating in an empty room. If you want to complain don’t start out by clearing your throat. The clock is running, and you only get three minutes. If you are interested in real planning here instead of empty theater, consider joining a group to push for it.