Democracy, Rainbows and Sidewalks by Kakie Urch

Democracy, Rainbows and Sidewalks by Kakie Urch

Democracy, rainbows and sidewalks
By Kakie Urch

It was four-and-a-half hours of democracy.

And depending on where you stand, live, walk or bike, the Lexington Fayette Urban County Council’ 11-4 vote Thursday night to approve a grant-funded plan to put sidewalks along a stretch of Tates Creek Road, was democracy at its best – or worst.

First there was the transfer of the allotted three minute public comment times, traded like so many carbon credits. Residents of the corridor along Tates Creek Road that would be affected by proposed sidewalks attended and signed the public comment sheet. For each name on the sheet present in the room, three minutes’ time at the podium is allowed. That’s democracy.

Residents may also yield their time to a designated speaker, which many Tates Creek homeowners did, en masse.

Mayor Jim Newberry did some admirable math on the fly keeping the “3 minutes X number of persons present”  time current and counting that time. In the end, 25 minutes were used by Bruce Simpson, the attorney for the Tates Creek preservation group, with 35 left over.  But not before each resident yielding the time was asked to stand and give his or her name and address. Because in this debate, where the citizen lives has a bearing.

Simpson’s arguments were legally and rhetorically strong, nigh on brilliant, backed by an engineering study with two engineers present to answer questions.  Using key phrases that the LFUCG had crafted itself, he began with the argument that the addition of 3.2 miles of sidewalks and removal of 119 power poles being voted on after last night’s second reading and public comment in fact constituted a “significant land use change,” and therefore required the full planning process.

He said that the city, on this project, had had one meeting, in November at the Immanuel Baptist Church and that his clients had received “one letter from the government.” That is in contrast to the usual process of “significant land use change,” he said, which involves the planning commission, at least two meetings and public hearings, conceptual research into the “impact, design and consequences”

The remedy, he said, was to step back and analyze this case, and put it through the proper planning commission hoops.

If not, the people impacted (and this is his word, not mine, as every one of you old school journalists knows how difficult it is to remove an “impacted” person) would be “uninformed,” and, he addressed council “you will be uninformed.”  To a city council that prides itself on openness, inclusiveness and adherence to the letter of the code, this was meant to be strong medicine.

He then cited the 2007 Bicycle Pedestrian Master Plan, itself, extolling its 200 pages, its two years to complete, with its $155,000 in government funds and nine staff member s’ labor.  Those strongly supporting the sidewalks, in general, are strong supporters of the Bike Plan.

Using it as a foundational support to his argument was, in essence, posing the “Who’s against rainbows?” question.  (That’s the contemporary “When did you stop beating your wife?”)

Citing the Bike Plan – practically the Holy Bible of the connectivity and sustainability and wellness groups – Simpson noted that the Tates Creek section in question is “not in the first tier of the plan.”  “Why are we moving ahead of 51 other projects?” Simpson asked, pointing out that each of the council members on the dais had a project that ranked higher on the Bike Plan’s priority matrix as he read it.

“It’s not about sidewalks, it’s about policy,” Simpson said, referring to some of the best city policy yet made: the Bike Plan. To approve the Tates Creek project, which had been approved for an $800,000 federal grant, would be “not following the plan” and creating a situation where the affected residents did “not have information.”

“Why breech a plan for the first time that was given so much consideration?”  Simpson asked the council point-blank.

That’s rattling some long history. Who on the council would want to go down as the first person to issue the commercial variance on then-New Circle Road, the magical super-circle that was to have solved all our traffic problems?

That too was considered at length. And then some council, sometime, said, “Heck, what’s one convenience store?”  Enter Man-O-War Boulevard, and so on.

Simpson showed photos of the gas lines, phone lines and tree stands along the route … saying that he had contacted the utilities and asked what plan they had for the estimated “several hundred thousand dollars” of changes it would require…that to him appeared unfunded by the $800,000 grant.  The utilities had no plan, he said, and no information. This section of the argument implied that council staff had willy nilly applied for the grant and assumed that the utilities would sort out their required costs later.

With this argument resonating, and the chamber filled with folks who had called Tates Creeks’ shaded green corridor home for decades, it appeared that the Daffy Duck gun had been deployed well.  Simpson’s argument made sense and it appeared, was heard by council.

Attorney Jennifer Miller, on Twitter, pointed out that this argument about the policy and the plan was also resonant of the recent decisions made by council on the CentrePointe development. CentrePoint opponents had argued that the city was breeching the comprehensive plan and its own historical preservation guidelines in approving the demolition of the block that now stands empty downtown with the hopeful Marriott rendering surrounded by a chain link fence.

And that’s part of the democracy.  Folks can hire a lawyer, have public time, present their arguments, transfer speaking time and use public documents and GTV3, Twitter, and blogs to alert those at home.

The voice of private property and contract law is one of the strongest in a democracy.

So, who else was heard?

The president of the Lansdowne Neighborhood Association, a former tree board chair, who presented her neighborhood’s support of the sidewalk and an argument that many of the tree along the way were diseased or dying pin oaks.

Peggy Rollings, a 26-year resident of the area who uses a wheel chair and who asked for the sidewalks so she could cross the road she lives on.

A doctor who approached looking dead-on a member of the set that would oppose the sidewalks and then spoke for them.

A leader on the Ashland Neighborhood Association….other folks who might be called “landed gentry,” supporting the sidewalks.

A young working mother who wanted to use the sidewalks to get to her job at the University of Kentucky and to allow her child to walk to Cassidy Elementary School. She attended with her husband and two children.

A retired educator who cited the critical thinking we now teach youngsters and applied it to “healthy lifestyles,” urging the council to “Vote your heart, vote your conscience, vote with courage.”

A woman from the North Side who argued that indeed council was bypassing priority projects in her area, where streets and sidewalks were much more impassible than Tates Creek.

The city engineer who pointed out that the right of way in the region was always intended by the city to have sidewalks, they just hadn’t been put in.

Folks who queried whether the “June 30 deadline” was actually a deadline. (It’s simply the LFUCG’s deadline for the approval of the project, the engineer said.  October is the state’s deadline for the funding to be apportioned.)

Every council member – taking his or her full time to comment and explain his or her position before the vote. With a 15-member council, that’s a long, messy position period.

And, some council members included a rehearsal of their workout schedule, positioning themselves either for or against the sidewalks in that context.

But the council comments were heartfelt. Diane Lawless mentioned “Children who need to get in the car to go two or three blocks,” and the connection of sidewalks to needs connected to concerns about obesity, disability, and aging.

Councilmember Feigel voted against the measure, raising real concerns about using city funds for sidewalks when fire stations can’t be staffed at minimum safe levels and financial revenue projections are down.

Those who voted for the sidewalks apologized to the constituents from Tates Creek, citing over and over again, the greater good and the city’s need to move ahead with its much ballyhooed connectivity and wellness plans, as seen in cities like Austin, Texas, Madison, Wisconsin And Toronto, Canada.  Those who voted against the sidewalks said they weren’t against rainbows.

“This road isn’t just for people who live on it, it’s for everybody,” was the Councilmember Linda Gorton’s comment, which capped the 4.5 hours of democratic discussion and the vote.

Kakie Urch is an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications.