The heavy machinery of governing

Everyman loves machinery, whether he knows anything about it or not. Every doctor, lawyer or Indian chief, at one time or another, has pictured himself operating a powerful machine. I heard a kid on the news the other day when asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, he said, “a trash man.” I know it had something to doing with operating a heavy-duty piece of machinery. I could relate.

As a kid, I watched from my front window as the trash man made his way down my street. He’d pick up a few cans and empty them into the rear hopper and then he’d grab a handle on the side and hop on a platform and ride the rear of the truck to the next stop. When the back hopper became full; he would grab a handle that operated some hydraulics inside, and a huge metal plate would come down and pull all the trash in the hopper inside the truck.

Everyman would like to climb aboard a big yellow Caterpillar bulldozer, fire it up and feel the power beneath him; push yards of earth and fell trees with a bump of the throttle. It either comes from a childhood desire or a subconscious need for power; maybe a desire to push his boss around like a clump of clay.

When a man passes a construction site, while driving along the road, he notices all the equipment first: the bulldozers, backhoes and the most fascinating of all, the “Timberjack,” loading huge oak tree trunks onto trucks to carry them to processing mills.

While most of the ladies see the project and wonder “what’s going to be built there?” – a logical question. Men just want to know how it will be built. At least I do. In a former life, I operated some of these machines that could push your house over if the bulldozer was big enough.

To clear the land, scrape off the top soil and build up a pad for the building to sit on it takes a partnership of timbering and land preparation to ready the site for building.
This could be a metaphor for the cooperation of those who negotiate laws in the hollowed halls of the Capitol; both of them. And at the local level, where sometimes it takes a back and forth between developer and one of the other pleas brought before the county’s decision makers – the Board of Supervisors.

Sometimes we see that as an easy task, thumbs up or down on any particular issue, and I barrette the group for some of their decisions. But, to me, what matters is what background each of the member of the Board of Supervisors consumed. What kind of homework has been done and how much do they really know about the issue.

Not too long ago it would take almost a ream of paper to read or fish through to get background created by the planning staff and the planning commission before it was presented to the Board. Now, I suppose most of it is online, so even the public can see most of the case before it hits the Board level.

Staff takes in the application, reviews and decides whether it conforms to county zoning standards and the comprehensive plan then passes their opinion to the planning commission. The planning commission delves into the specifics of the case and will sometimes hold a community meeting for public input. This is where I think there can be a breakdown. The county ordinance requires that only adjoining property owners are informed of the changes requested. But sometimes the surrounding property owners can be other business or only the applicant himself. That doesn’t make sense for community input. So, the Commission does hold a community meeting when in fact, the request for a new business or subdivision can affect many property owners in the area. They don’t even hear about the project until it is growing out of the ground or the sign is on the building.

Sure, there are public notices in the Chesterfield Observer, but do you get it in the mail? Do you pick it up; do you look at the tiny print notices in the back? That’s the only way you have of finding out about them, unless you a local gadfly that looks at any projects or listens, finds out from someone who spoke to someone who heard it from someone else. In my opinion, that is a step in the process that needs to be fixed. Why not mail the notice or change in zoning to properties away from the project? There’s a slightly better chance that citizens may get an opportunity to consider what’s could affect their neighborhood and possibly the value of their property.

Chesterfield has received awards for open government. Why not take it a step further and let a few more people know what is about to shape their community and neighborhood. Chesterfield residents are not all stupid and they are not all selfish. The results of widened community input is just a stamp away. The cost to the county of notifying ten more property owners around the proposed change in zoning – $4.60.

The Board of Supervisors works hard and typically has all the information they may think they need. But a few more voices or cogs in the wheel of progress surely won’t jam the machine.

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