by Noëlle McAfee
My post of two days ago surfaced strong feelings. So let me back up to say how we got here and clarify the goals that some of us supposed-troublemakers are hoping for.
Late last spring, my husband and I invited some people we know in the neighborhood over to discuss general matters of preservation, architecture, and design in the neighborhood. Just before we met, the Hollin Hills Bulletin reported that a house on Drury Lane was applying for “near complete demolition of an existing structure” and that the Design Review Committee (DRC) thought that this demolition was “outside the scope of its review” but was trying to persuade the applicants to consider alternatives. At our meeting, we discussed the possibility that the teardown might result in the kind of controversial project that had prompted the civic association to appoint a Special Design Review Committee (SDRC) to review the DRC guidelines. Some of us at that gathering felt strongly that teardowns should be a last resort; others were more concerned with making sure the design review guidelines were followed closely so that whatever was built up was really in harmony and conformity, that site lines were preserved, et cetera. All of us in the room supported the SDRC process; one person there was on the committee. Others had served on the civic association’s board or the DRC in the past.
During that meeting, someone said he had just learned that the DRC had given approval for the homeowners on Drury Lane to tear down their house. That turned out to be incorrect. As we learned the next day, the DRC does not approve or disapprove teardowns. It only gives approval for new construction. In this case, it had still only given conceptual approval. Final approval could not come until actual construction plans were presented. The Special Design Review process had just gotten underway and it was still an open question as to whether the covenants allowed teardowns. It seemed as if two arms of the civic association might be working at cross purposes if the DRC was staying mum on teardowns—and hence letting them proceed—while the SDRC was still figuring out whether teardowns could be banned.
Because of our concern, we decided to initiate a petition to call a special meeting of the civic association. The by-laws read that we needed just 25 signatures to call for such a meeting. Overnight we got about 75 from 39 households, so we stopped gathering signatures and sent the petition to the Board. (If we had kept going, at that rate, I think we could have easily gotten over 100 households to sign on.) The petition aimed at slowing things down until the SDRC had finished its work and the civic association had had a chance to revise the guidelines. The Board chose to delay the special meeting for which we had petitioned. (I hope a review of the by-laws will consider whether the Board can unilaterally postpone a meeting petitioned by the membership.) Anyway, for reasons that have been amply explained in the Bulletin, the special meeting was postponed for several months. By the time the meeting was actually held, things had changed: on the one hand we had the lawyer’s opinion suggesting it might not be possible to ban teardowns and on the other hand the Drury Lane project had not proceeded any further, yet.
But in the meantime much had happened. Some of us, some of whom were members of what we dubbed “the House in the Woods Club,” started attending DRC meetings so that we could follow what was happening with that potential teardown and to see how the DRC worked. Because the time, place, and agenda of the meetings was often not up-to-date on the website, we would write to the DRC chair to ask for details and the agenda. When we received it, we’d post it on this blog. After the meeting, since the minutes usually wouldn’t be publicized until the next Bulletin appeared several weeks later, we’d post our observations on the blog as well. None of this was greeted with open arms. Many were probably thinking, “Who are these people and why are they second-guessing us?” Clearly things had been running as they were for quite some time, so that our polite but insistent questioning was taken for something other that what it really was: simply access to information that should be public, anyway.
At the first DRC meeting we attended, there was a huge amount of tension. During one session with applicants, the observers were told that the applicants wanted privacy and hence that the observers would have to leave. And so they waited out in the hall during that session. Also, in between meetings, some of us asked to see the plans for the Drury Lane project, but we were denied because of “privacy issues” and because the process had long been such that only the DRC and contiguous neighbors were to be shown the plans. During another session we were told we couldn’t attend the DRC’s executive session, which is the time during which the DRC looks over proposed plans.
In the Bulletin, one letter from a neighbor said that we could go directly to the homeowners to see the Drury Lane plans. It’s true that the applicants on Drury Lane said once, during one of our House in the Woods Club meetings, that if we wanted to see the plans, we could have just asked. But when we subsequently asked to see the plans, they said no.
So, it seemed that something was amiss: the only people who could see the plans were immediate neighbors and the DRC itself. It seemed quite possible that immediate neighbors, because they are neighbors, might hesitate to raise objections. The DRC itself was following the guidelines in a way that had just allowed that very controversial house. And all the other members of the community, who certainly had a stake in the outcome of DRC decisions, were often prevented from seeing proposals. The Drury Lane case, in particular, is not the issue. Maybe it’s a perfectly great design for a Hollin Hills home; maybe it’s in harmony and conformity with the community. But who knows? Only the DRC and the neighbors.
Now, I say none of the above to disrespect the neighbors or the DRC or the owners of the controversial house that set off much of this discussion. The latter I am quite fond of, and they are the parents of one of my son’s best friends. They also followed the protocol as it was spelled out all the way down the line. As for neighbors, I trust that they will often call things the way they see them—most of the time, though likely not all of the time. And all the people that I personally know on the DRC I like and respect very much. And the others whom I don’t know as well I like, too. I even like the fellow who threw the observers, including my husband and some of my friends, out of the DRC meeting. This person and I have disagreed on things and still will talk things through via email and the blog. Also, as my friends and I have attended more DRC meetings, the DRC has become more open and accommodating. They even ask for our input. So I have no gripe with the people involved. In fact, I am very grateful that there are people with such integrity and commitment who are willing to serve the community.
Our concern is with the process. As it is currently formulated, the DRC process allows for approval of projects that violate the guidelines; it allows the committee to bar civic association members from observing deliberations, plans, and votes (that is, to the extent that votes are taken during closed proceedings); it allows the DRC to post minimal minutes of its meetings, well after the fact; it provides no process for appeal by the community nor any avenue or opportunity for community-wide input. (By this last point, to anticipate Barbara Ward’s concerns, I do not mean that the whole community should vote, only that all should have a chance to weigh in, just as any city council allows for public input while the council itself decides things.) The existing process allows all this. In the heat of a decision, it is the rare DRC member, a neighbor after all, who would begrudge another neighbor a Home Depot pre-fab shed that no one else would see – even if this means violating a clearly stated guideline. The process allows it, so why not. And what DRC member would begrudge a neighbor’s “right to privacy” of plans that many others in the community might start picking apart? When torn between the face of a beseeching neighbor and an abstract set of design review guidelines with vague parameters, it’s a hard road to always stick by the abstract and negate the beseeching neighbor.
It is because we are neighbors and want to wish each other the best that we need a stronger process that ensures harmony and conformity.
Having come across these problems with the DRC process, we decided to offer the SDRC some ideas for its survey of the community. The SDRC was, after all, inviting community input. The SDRC chair, Chris McNamara, attended one of the House in the Woods meetings over the summer to discuss issues, and the SDRC invited members of our group, including my husband, to one of its meetings to offer suggestions.
Our hope was that these suggestions would make their way in to the questionnaire. We also hoped that questions would be framed in a way that would capture the extent to which the community might value preservation, a word that easily conjures up images of time capsules, museums, buildings frozen in time. It’s easy to caricature a movement to value existing buildings, to paint advocates for preservation as dyed-in-the-wool obstructionists and purists – when in fact most preservation movements are keen to make sure that people are happy and comfortable in their homes, that additions can be made in a way that preserves the original aesthetic without preventing contemporary living. It’s so easy to misrepresent preservation that we wanted to have a look at how the questions are framed by even the most well-intentioned and hard-working volunteers, many of whom also value preservation.
But, as my last post noted, the Board and the SDRC decided not to make the questionnaire available in advance. I still think this is a mistake. Various reasons were offered in defense of this decision.
• One advocate of this decision argues that community input into the questionnaire could lead to “respondent bias.” But that term applies to entirely different phenomena, such as when people respond to questions in a way to make themselves look good to the survey researcher (“yes, I always vote”), or due to other personal proclivities.
• Another argument was that time was wasting and posting the questionnaire would set back the process. But we started asking for the questionnaire nearly two weeks ago, and there was no reason that a very short time limit couldn’t be made for accepting suggestions. So this rationale doesn’t hold much water.
• As for the other rationale, “trust us, we’re hard workers, and you can complain later if you don’t like, it,” well, gosh. How does one begin to respond to this? The issue is not about the integrity of the volunteers but about making the process fully open to community input in the midst of things, not after the fact. Linda Hesh made this point in a comment to the previous post.
Anyway, we won’t be seeing the questionnaire in advance. So let me pose here some things for us all to consider, points we hope are covered in the questionnaire. Let’s consider the following:
Whether, in the interest of openness and transparency, all Design Review Committee sessions with applicants should be open to all residents of Hollin Hills;
Whether all Design Review Committee decisions should be made at sessions that are open to all residents of Hollin Hills;
Whether all plans pending before the Design Review Committee should be made available to residents of Hollin Hills;
Whether the Design Review Committee should post its agenda on the Civic Association website at least 48 hours before any session;
Whether the Design Review Committee should notify the residents of Hollin Hills of any non-regularly scheduled meeting no less than 48 hours in advance;
Whether the Design Review Committee should post minutes of its sessions within 72 hours;
Whether, when issues of privacy are raised by applicants, the Design Review Committee should give equal weight to the principles of openness and transparency.
It’s not up to the Board, or the SDRC, or the House in the Woods Club to decide these things. It’s up to everyone in the community. So, please think these and other ideas though; debate them over dinner with your family and at parties with friends. If there’s no question on the questionnaire about any of these matters, write something in, whatever your views. And let’s ask the SDRC to look at all the qualitative suggestions made and not just run the numbers. Let’s make sure that the DRC process as well as the guidelines are the best they can be.