Our View: Planning commission goes rogue

Our View: Planning commission goes rogue

There are 73 ongoing boards and commissions listed on the City of Alexandria’s website. This doesn’t include ad hoc entities formed for specific reasons, such as the parking standards for new development projects task force that is about to recommend significant reductions in required parking.

These boards, commissions and task forces are populated by many hundreds of city residents who give their time to research and consider issues and make recommendations to city council.

This process is helpful on several fronts. It involves the citizenry in local governance and serves as a grooming ground for Alexandrians who may go on to serve on the school board or city council.

It also makes city council more efficient, as that body would never have time to delve into the details these groups do. Indeed, these commissions and boards ensure ideas proposed by city staff are more polished before they reach council, because they have been deliberated and, in many instances, revised.

Stop and imagine for a minute what would happen if each of these 73-plus boards, commissions and task forces began creating policy and issuing edicts themselves. Chaos would ensue. Residents would be overwhelmed by reams of conflicting rules. Our city would become ungovernable.

On Sept. 7, a step in that direction was taken when the planning commission veered into the policy-making realm. It overturned parts of an agreement that had been forged by Bishop Ireton High School, the surrounding neighborhood and city staff over the course of a year. In so doing, language about what the city “should be regulating” was given as justification.

Fortunately, this overreach was reversed on Saturday, as city council voted unanimously at its public hearing to reject the planning commission’s recommendation to exclude portions of the agreement between Bishop Ireton and neighborhood organizations from its Development Special Use Permit. Council returned modified elements of the agreement to the DSUP.

The larger issue is twofold. If agreements on concessions between developers, in this case Bishop Ireton, and affected parties in the community, in this case the surrounding neighbors, are shunted into private memos of understanding, they are not enforceable by the city. A wronged party could sue for non-compliance – and likely pay significant legal fees – but they couldn’t turn to the city for help.

And, of course, if the city does change direction on what it includes in DSUPs, that decision needs to be made by our elected representatives on city council, not by people appointed to serve on a commission.

At the conclusion of the discussion on Saturday, Mayor Allison Silberberg issued a rebuke of the planning commission for overstepping its bounds. Councilor John Chapman immediately responded that council should not publicly criticize a commission. But in this instance we think the public criticism was helpful.

Many in the community were already outraged by the planning commission’s action. The mayor didn’t let the cat out of the bag about a family squabble, but instead gave voice to frustration felt by many. By publicly acknowledging the planning commission’s overreach, her words served notice to other commissions and boards that ventures into policy making will not be tolerated.

At least we hope that’s the end result.