The Appropriateness of a Neighborhood Association President Expressing an Opinion

By Dom Nozzi

February 21, 2005

In early 2005, while serving as the president of my neighborhood association, I sent the following letter to a resident of the neighborhood who had expressed concerns about my comments in a recent Association newsletter:

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and concerns about the views I have expressed recently (and over the years) in the “President’s Corner” of the Neighborhood Association (NA) newsletter. I firmly believe that it is healthy for a community and its neighborhood residents to openly express differences of opinion. I am also pleased to know that you have contributed to the NA in the past. Support for the Association is important and appreciated.

Note that I saw your kind email comments to another neighborhood resident about the work I do for the NA, and I appreciate those comments.

To respond to your comments…

First, you note concern about the NA president expressing views as if they were the views of the entire neighborhood, and treating the column as if it were a soapbox. Let me start by saying that the NA is not a gardening club. The initial, on-going, and primary purpose of the NA is to look out for the interests and welfare of the neighborhood, and this inevitably entails that the NA and its officers should and do openly express viewpoints about governmental and private sector plans and actions. Indeed, the NA was formed, in part, to hold forums for candidates running for political office (our 2/22/05 city commission candidate forum is an example of a long-standing tradition of the NA holding candidate forums), and, when necessary, to appear before the City Commission to make appeals for neighborhood interests. In addition, there has been a long NA tradition of inviting elected officials, local government staff, and local developers to NA general meetings to discuss issues, plans and proposed developments in or near the neighborhood (primarily to urge that such issues, plans and developments proceed in a way that is compatible with the neighborhood).

Furthermore, an essential role played by the NA president (both currently and in the past) is to serve as the official spokesperson for the neighborhood. And to do so in a way that, in the judgment of the president and its officers, is promoting the interests and welfare of the neighborhood. This often requires that controversial, highly-charged opinions be openly expressed. Inevitably, in a healthy community, these opinions will not necessarily be shared by all members of the community (in which case, dissent should be expressed). However, it is important that the president provides a viewpoint that is believed to promote the welfare of the neighborhood, rather than be silent on issues that are important to the neighborhood welfare. Should the neighborhood be silent on such issues, there is great danger that the neighborhood will convey the implied message that it has no concerns or viewpoints about its welfare.

Neighborhood silence can easily lead to quite inappropriate, harmful actions being taken by elected officials, public staff, or private developers with regard to neighborhood interests.

In sum, it is entirely appropriate for the NA president to use her or his judgment to frequently and openly express viewpoints believed to be in the interests of the neighborhood, even if those viewpoints are considered “controversial,” or if it is known that the opinion is not shared by everyone in the neighborhood.  Limiting the views of the NA president to only those in which there is a known neighborhood consensus would not be practical or desirable as it would be exceptionally difficult to ascertain what views are considered a consensus. And even if it were possible to know when consensus was reached, the consensus views would be almost exclusively composed of trivial, unhelpful, non-statements (the neighborhood, after all, has residents with widely differing opinions on nearly all important issues — as it should).

You note that the NA president suggests that the neighborhood “insist” that a new nearby business be designed in a way that is compatible with the neighborhood. You indicate that it is not appropriate for a neighborhood to tell a private property owner how to design their private property.

On the contrary, I believe it is extremely appropriate (indeed, I would call it an obligation) for the neighborhood and its elected representatives to express opinions about how developments near and within the neighborhood are designed.

Why?

Because developments in or near a neighborhood can have a very direct, significant impact on the welfare (the property values or quality of life or civic pride) of the neighborhood. The US Supreme Court acknowledged this approximately 80 years ago (and continues to affirm this in its decisions since then) by granting local governments the power to zone private land and apply land development regulations to such land. By doing so, the Court clearly acknowledges that such power is both appropriate and necessary “to protect the health, safety and welfare” of the community. Examples of these constitutionally permissible, appropriate powers applying to private property include sign regulations, zoning regulations stating which uses are allowed on which private properties in a community, building setbacks, noise regulations, building height limits, parking regulations, controlling access to public roads, building and electrical code safety regulations, stormwater control regulations, fire regulations, utility regulations, etc.

Community public safety would be dangerously compromised if this regulation and oversight were not in place. Only if the development of the site would have no affect on the health, safety and welfare of those who visit the site or those who live near the site should the property owner be granted the ability to “do anything she or he pleases to do with their private property.” A long-recognized ethical principal states that your right to swing your fist ends at the beginning of my nose.

I don’t believe it is fair to describe my comments about the proposed 16th Avenue and Main Street development to be comments of “disdain.” Indeed, I am largely impressed by what is proposed and what the designers are willing to do to create a higher quality project. My comments were intended to simply have the neighborhood residents be vigilant about the proposed design of the site so that it can perhaps become an evenco better design (from the point of view of neighborhood interests), and to be on guard against design revisions that would be undesirable to neighborhood welfare. I apologize if the wording of my comments suggested otherwise.

Note, as an aside, that with regard to equity, the public has every right to have a say as to how the property at 16th Avenue and Main Street is developed, as a substantial amount of the commercial value embodied in that property is due to road and utility improvements which were paid for by public tax revenues.

As for the Main Street views I expressed, I offer no apologies for the position I proudly take (and publicly express). While my views are not necessarily those of the City of Gainesville, they are views that are consistent with a recent vote of our city and county commission sitting as the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO).

In addition, I have been a senior city planner in Gainesville for nearly 18 years with a master’s degree in city planning. A few years ago, I wrote the long-range transportation plan for the City, and served, professionally, on a design team for the reconstruction of Main Street.

In preparation for much of that work, I conducted substantial, thorough research of published literature and analyzed the work done in communities throughout America. What I have learned is that in countless communities (many of which are quite similar to this city), a courageous decision was made to reduce the number of travel lanes on large community roads within the community. Invariably, this sort of road “restoration” in cities in all parts of the nation lead to dramatic, nearly overnight improvements in street safety (for motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users), retail and residential health, and civic pride. It is quite astonishing to see how many communities have experienced such a substantial improvement in these community factors so quickly and inexpensively. Far from “making it more difficult to travel,” these “diets” usually improve not only motorist safety but also improve driving pleasure and convenience.

Which helps explain why our MTPO voted in favor of the idea.

All of this helps explain why I recently wrote a book entitled “Road to Ruin,” published in October 2003 by a national publisher (Praeger Publishers in Connecticut), and why I am regularly invited to speak throughout Florida and the nation about the viewpoints expressed in the book.

The above observations help explain why I believe I know a thing or two about the proper design of streets such as Main Street, and partly why I believed it was appropriate for me to make my viewpoint known in the NA newsletter.

You should know that on a number of occasions, I have remained silent on issues that troubled me and were related to the neighborhood. Largely, these are issues where I don’t believe I have sufficient information or knowledge about the topic, or don’t believe there is sufficient neighborhood support for the view which I hold about the topic. In general, I strive to have the views I express at NA meetings and in the newsletter be tempered by what I believe are acceptable (or officially approved) by the NA Board of Directors and the majority of neighborhood residents.

In closing, let me point out that you are more than welcome to run for president, vice-president, or Board of Directors of the NA so that you would have a larger voice in what views are expressed by the NA. Or to urge others to do so, should you feel the desire to influence the viewpoints expressed by the NA. Having the NA be silent — even if silence is only applied to issues considered “controversial” — is, I believe, a recipe for neighborhood decline, and a dereliction of duties for its duly-elected office-holders.

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Filed under Politics, Transportation, Urban Design

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