Since I last wrote here, I agreed to run for the Easton Town Council, campaigned and won in the period of just over one month – from the end of March to the second of May. Sworn in on May 15, I have served on the Council for 3½ months as of September 1. I did promise, when we took a summer break from publishing the Chesapeake Observer, that I would write an article for the Labor Day issue. Since I have spent most of my time this summer thinking about current and forthcoming issues before the Council, that is what I will write.
Unacceptable Residential Development
The major issue on which I campaigned and was elected was putting the brakes on growth in Easton. We are elected from Wards, and my Ward III is exclusively residential, with three of the four largest communities populated largely by seniors like us. The most pressing issue facing this Ward was a proposed development called Poplar Hill, that would have added 450 new housing units to an environmentally sensitive area with no ability to absorb the additional traffic.
I won by a 60-40 margin with a record turnout. It was not my charming personality and razor-sharp wit that got me elected; the election became a referendum on growth because my opponent, the incumbent, refused to take a clear position opposing this development.
Elections matter, and energetic popular participation makes a difference. As our Planning Commission held hearings on Poplar Hill, the remarkable experience and expertise of Easton residents took charge. Local residents who are experts on water quality, wildlife habitat, stormwater runoff and all the other key problems with the development appeared and gave lucid and authoritative testimony about potential impacts.
A few weeks ago, we won a big victory. The developer withdrew his request to be allowed to build high density housing in the critical area that drains directly into the Upper Tred Avon River. Two weeks later he submitted a plan for just 100 houses, all but 3 outside the area that needs protection. From 450 to 100 new homes is what can happen when citizens care and speak out. We have people here who have operated at the top levels of their professions, government and academia – it is just necessary to get them motivated to join the fray.
How We Elect Town Officials
We are now two weeks away from electing a President for our Town Council, to replace the former President who was elected Mayor at the same time I joined the Council. Without prejudice toward any of the candidates, we use the worst possible system to electing councilmembers and a mayor. Ours is a nonpartisan election, and getting on the ballot requires just 15 signatures on a petition. No matter how many run, the candidate with the most votes wins. In the past, few elections were competed at all, and even when they were, rarely was there more than one challenger.
Now it appears that interest in how our town is run is much greater. There were 3 candidates for Mayor, and the winner had just over 40% of the total vote. Now we have 4 candidates for the town council president, and it is very unlikely that the winner will have even that high a plurality.
Academics have been examining the properties of electoral systems ever since game theory was applied to political science in the 1970s. An interesting article, unfortunately behind a high paywall, provides evidence that the system we use, a simple plurality vote, is the least likely to elect the candidate who would have beaten any rival in a one-on-one contest. (Email the editors for a copy if you are interested) Our system is also the least likely to provide a result satisfactory to a majority of the electorate. For example, if there are two candidates with similar positions and one outlier, there is a strong likelihood the outlier will have more votes than either of the two similar candidates, even if voters would strongly prefer either of the similar candidates over the outlier.
The simplest alternative is an open primary with a runoff. In this election, voters whose preferred candidate or candidates are dropped off the ballot get to vote again, and in the runoff they are able to reassign the vote to their second choice. The outcome is that the winner has a majority, thus increasing confidence in election results and that all votes count. The above article rates the runoff system considerably higher than our current plurality vote.
The ranked choice method, advocated in the Spy by Al Sikes, requires the voter to rank all candidates. If no candidate has a majority of first place votes, the canvassers drop the lowest candidate and reallocate his or her second place votes. This recalculation with reallocated votes continues until a candidate gets a majority. This system is even better at finding the candidate that satisfies the most voters, but (pace Mr Sikes) it is much more complex to explain and perform.
Another thing I learned is how straightforward the process of changing our voting system is. As a Charter Town, the Town Council can make that change without needing any permission from the State. The process involves a resolution, public hearing, vote and then 50 days to allow a petition for a referendum on the change to be submitted. If there is no successful opposing petition, the change goes into effect.
The Town Council has a heavy workload looking ahead. At some point this fall, the planning staff will submit a draft Comprehensive Plan (Plan) to the Planning Commission. It will hold hearings, redraft the Plan, and then submit it to the Town Council. We then have time to review and suggest revisions to the Planning Commission, if warranted.
This Comprehensive Plan is the foundation for efforts to keep growth down and direct the type and location of growth to be compatible with the current character of the town. I, and I believe those who elected me, want to see several things in the plan:
- Clear and enforceable language that limits future population growth to no more than 1% a year on average from 2024 forward. This would allow 75 to 100 new housing units to be built per year, or 750 to 1000 after 10 years. That implies a need to specify in the Comprehensive Plan how it will be decided which of the 1200 or so that are now planned go first, if at all.
- First priority for planning and zoning consideration given to
- conversion of commercial or industrial space to multi-family housing compatible with surrounding neighborhoods
- housing located in the core of Easton that does not involve building on open space
- An effective ban on developments of more than 50 – 100 housing units, in order to maintain diversity of designs along with compatibility with existing neighborhoods
- A plan for acquisition of land to be made available to developers at no charge as an incentive to development of housing to be sold for the cost of construction and a fair profit
After the Comprehensive Plan is adopted, the next step is revising the zoning code to be consistent with it. This step then makes the execution of the Comprehensive Plan by the Planning Commission and planning and zoning staff a matter of applying unambiguous rules to all applications for new developments and permits.
Since there are already developments with full planning approval that are moving into the permitting stage, whether or not we exceed the target of 1% growth for several years will depend on how rapidly those communities are actually built. Thus it may be necessary to develop zoning rules under which the developer makes a binding commitment to the rate at which building will take place, so that the planning and zoning staff will be able to project actual growth in housing, and by implication population, after developments are approved. Armed with this information, the Council will know whether a moratorium on building permits will be needed to restrain growth to the mandatory target.
What I do not think we need is Inclusionary Zoning. The town council had a workshop on this a few weeks ago, with a detailed report presented by planning and zoning staff. I think they got it exactly right in their evaluation: “Inclusionary zoning may be better suited to more rapidly growing and larger jurisdictions where the rate of growth can generate a significant number of units. The Council may want to discuss whether the ordinance is suitable for a town the size of Easton and its effect (positive or negative) on the housing market, especially for infill and redevelopment.” The staff went on to point out the budgetary impact of administering and enforcing the provisions of an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance.
In my own research on the topic, I found that there are a number of studies (see this meta-analysis) that perform statistical analysis of the performance of inclusionary zoning across all the municipalities where one has been adopted. The studies conclude that almost all fail in one or more of three ways: they don’t work because builders all get exemptions, they cause the supply of housing to fall because of the additional cost and red tape for builders, and they cause the market price of housing to rise. I will encourage the council to table this proposal, at least until we adopt the comprehensive plan, revise the zoning code to be consistent with the Plan, and see what that does to increase the supply of less costly housing.
Three issues on the horizon are marijuana, “affordable housing” and an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO). The Town Council has a hearing on a proposed 9-month moratorium on retail sales scheduled for our September 18 Council Meeting, and “affordable housing” is an issue that will pervade discussion of the Comprehensive Plan, zoning and other land-use decisions. The APFO is an important tool that, with the Comprehensive Plan and zoning, can help to prevent growth when infrastructure is inadequate, but creating one is a complex process. Each requires a full article, so look for more in later editions.