Better Than Television

I just attended a real humdinger of a Planning Commission meeting, and, let me tell you, I’m going to start going to these things all the time if they’re going to be this interesting. I had a personal and academic interest in the second item on the agenda, as it has generated a fair amount of controversy and I think it’s an interesting illustration of the complexities of small town politics, complete with backbiting, sniping, and utter lunacy.

The issue at hand was a local restaurant which wanted to expand its hours so that they could close at 11:00 during the week and midnight on the weekends. This ignited a firestorm of controversy over mixed-zoning areas, as the restaurant is in a mixed use district. The property owners, of course, came out in droves to support the measure, while a handful of local residents opposed it.

It did reveal some very interesting things to me, both as an observer and as a participant.

The first was that Fort Bragg clearly needs to think about its policy on mixed use zoning. It needs to set clear standards and apply them across the board, because this problem is going to come up again and again. Especially since mixed zoning is so trendy right now, I think that it would behoove the city to get its act together. In an area like this, there are also a lot of shitstarters who like to spoil the fun for everyone else, and now that they smell blood, they’re not going to stop. The city may have a real problem on its hands.

I also thought it interesting and rather tragic to see how many people were into the tourism industry, like it’s our knight in shining armor. Many of these same people, of course, work for organizations like the “Mendocino County Promotion Board,” so of course I wouldn’t expect them to have a balanced view on the matter. But I think it’s tragic that we are essentially killing ourselves with tourism, and no one is brave enough to suggest alternatives or to speak out against it. It’s not the only option!

There were also some very clear lines drawn. Alas, although I though the opposition had a good case, it did a poor job of presenting and arguing it. They threw around a lot of borderline slander and information of questionable veracity in their attempt to fight the permit, and I think that was a mistake. They really came off as poorly organized, unimpressive idiots with a personal agenda, rather than a valid source of concern. I actually rose to speak on behalf of the opposition, and I was a bit irritated that they tried to enfold me as one of their own, since I did not want to be associated with their tactics, which I thought were underhanded.

I personally opposed the granting of a permit for late hours because I felt that it would have a negative impact on my quality of life, and I spoke about that. I did not feel the need to malign the restaurant or its owners during my testimony, as I think that sort of behavior is rather childish and it weakens your main point. Alas, other people who spoke in opposition did not feel that way, and they presented evidence at the last minute and rambled incoherently on the stand while members of the audience snorted. I wonder if they were aware of how unimpressed the audience was.

At one point, one of these people actually suggested that “more people wanted to come and speak but they were afraid of retaliation,” which is simply poppycock. We’re a small town. That’s not really how we roll, guys. I even felt obligated to approach the restaurant owners afterwards to express my discomfort with that statement, because I wanted them to know that not all of the opposition is spouting absurd rhetoric.

I think that the people who spoke in support made a lot of really good points. It was actually kind of amusing to me that all of the old people talked about wanting to go out at night, and me, the young twenty something, was arguing for shorter hours. I wasn’t impressed with the appeal to tourism, but I thought there were some logical bits in there. I also thought it was interesting that many (though not all) of these people were new to the area, and obviously unaware of the complex intergenerational workings of small town politics. (Of course…most of the opponents were not originally from here either; I think I was the only one, actually.)

However, I did draw the line when supporters said that residents in a mixed use neighborhood should “get used to” noise or “deal with it.” I beg to disagree, and I said so when I spoke. Many of the people who live in the neighborhood in question are low income; they don’t have a choice to relocate because of noise. From my time living downtown, I can say that people who live there deal with public urination, garbage, drug dealing, and, yes, noise. I resented the implication that the people in those apartments don’t matter, because they do. They pay taxes, volunteer at the hospital, and go to school, and they deserve a say. They certainly do not need to “get used to it,” especially when a business moves in after they do and proposes to have extended hours. My personal rule is that if you move somewhere first, you get dibs on noise ordinances. You move afterwards: your problem.

And oh, how the fur flew. People kept leaping up to the podium to make rejoinders while the audience coughed, snickered, and jeered. It was amazing, I tell you! Way more entertaining than anything else in town, for sure. At the close of the public hearing, the Planning Commission adjourned briefly to review materials, and the argument was carried into the street, with representatives of the opposition trying to corner me while I engaged in spirited conversation with supporters of the measure.

I often get accused of playing both fields, which is not an entirely unfair accusation. I spoke in opposition for my own reasons, but I also support the right of people who want to support endeavors like this, and I enjoyed talking with them. I am also fully aware that I enjoy playing the position of devil’s advocate, and I like being able to see both sides of a situation, as I did in this case. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, personally. I also fully expected the supporters to carry the evening, since there were so many of them, and they were so articulate.

Imagine my surprise. After brief debate (with attempts by the public to add comments), the planning commission voted for hours which were, in my opinion, more reasonable: 10:00 closing on the weeknights and 11:00 on weekends. I was a bit slackjawed, actually, and my friends on the supporting side started giving me shit, claiming that my words alone swayed the Planning Commission. (Pish and tosh, I say. I merely rose to bring a more tempered voice to the opposition!) The opposition has “won” the evening, but I suspect that this battle is not over. Indeed, I sense that long simmering resentments are going to rise to the surface and explode in the coming months in the form of an epic battle; and I’m taking a ringside seat, myself. My local readers ought to join me, if they dare.