One of the items on the agenda for the civic association meeting this coming Tuesday night is an update on the Special Design Review Committee survey. If you filled out the survey, you may recall some questions about whether Design Review Committee meetings should be open to observers. As it turns out, this isn’t an academic question. For the past three DRC meetings, some applicants have requested and been granted closed sessions with the DRC. Except for immediate neighbors and the DRC, no one else is able to learn about proposed additions and renovations of these houses. This is so despite the fact that the covenants state that they can be enforced by “any other person or persons owning any real property situated in said development or subdivision.” (See the first paragraph of the Covenants.) If any other persons owning real property can enforce the covenants (not that things should ever come to that!) then certainly the authors of the covenants figured that they should be able to know what is going on. But with closed sessions, that’s not happening. Moreover, with closed sessions, the DRC only gets input from immediate neighbors, though the covenants indicate that all real property owners in the subdivision have standing in the process. The more closed sessions there are, the less information there is available for the community as a whole and the DRC itself.
When my husband and I along with some other people in the neighborhood started observing the DRC meetings last year, one set of applicants requested a closed session and the DRC complied. For many months thereafter, all sessions were open to the public. But then a few months ago an applicant again requested a closed session. The board weighed in and said that the DRC needed, because of that one earlier “precedent,” to let a session be closed when requested. Most sessions are still open, but one architect in particular is requesting that all her sessions be closed. One board member told me that this would be the protocol until the SDRC process of reviewing and revising the guidelines was completed.
Part of that SDRC process is the questionnaire we were all asked to complete this past winter. For anyone outside the SDRC and the board, this was the first time the wording was open to the public. The following is the wording of the first question pertaining to whether DRC meetings should be open:
22. Should any Hollin Hills resident be allowed to attend the monthly Design Review Committee meetings to voice opinions about the additions and renovations being discussed at that meeting?
The wording for this question is unfortunate, to say the least. It presumes that people want to attend meetings to voice their opinions rather than simply observe. There should have been a question asking whether observers could attend the monthly meeting, period. I and others who have observed the sessions go there to observe, not to voice our opinions. If we do speak up at all, it is between sessions and only to ask questions. We have never intervened, or even conspicuously coughed, when the DRC is considering a proposal. That would be completely inappropriate. It is only after the DRC has made its decision and the applicant has left that we might ever say, why did you decide this rather than that?
I have heard informally that, even with this wording, the majority of respondents answered “yes.” That’s pretty amazing, and if it’s true. it’s surely a testament that this community wants an open process for design review.
There were two other questions on the matter. Question 23 was whether applicants can request a private, preliminary session with the DRC. That seems perfectly reasonable and I have heard that most respondensts thought so too.
Question 24 asked whether an applicant with a proposal on the agenda could ask to have his or her session of the DRC meeting closed. I have heard that this question got a majority approval, seemingly contradicting the majority’s view on question 22. People want meetings open and they want the chance to close them. How can that be? Maybe this strange contradiction arises because the group of questions sets up a false choice: either there will be observers meddling with the process or there will be no observers at all. This would not have been the case had question number 22 simply asked whether observers could be present at meetings.
So, on Tuesday, if some people start to claim that the questionnaire results mean that the majority of the neighborhood wants to allow closed sessions, keep this in mind: Since the simple question of whether people should be allowed simply to observe meetings was never put to the neighborhood, we don’t really know what the neighborhood thinks. Let’s try to have some time to think through the right question in the right terms.