After the Council Meeting.

The Council meeting on Tuesday, October 10 yielded mixed results. The motion to abolish HARC was defeated. The motion to remove appeals of HARC decisions away from the P&Z Board of Adjustment and directly to the Council itself, passed.

An amendment to require a super majority vote (majority plus one), which was in line with the existing requirement for appeals currently made to the Board of Adjustment, was defeated, meaning a simple majority of 4-3 on the Council will find for an appeal.

We all went down, and we spoke, twice for the most part, once for each motion. Ross Hunter championed the viewpoint that the City and its people have an affirmative business plan working on the Square, targeted at Heritage Tourism. Rick Williamson spoke greatly to the need to present proof of allegations, and to have more open communications. He also made a plea for the process to slow down a little, instead of these surprise eruptions of political turmoil.

Others made a myriad of wonderful remarks, all generally pointing to the precious, rare, and fragile nature of Georgetown’s inner city, and the great need to be careful both with our development actions and with our political process.
This whole storm has blown up and come to a head in two weeks, causing great anguish and much hard work to townspeople who care about our political process. We will of course watch the Council very closely while they hold the appellate power over HARC’s decisions, and hopefully this will be an uneventful watch.

In the end, what came out of the meeting were directives to the City Manager to review and return with proposals for changes to the ordinance, instruction for HARC and city staff to get together and talk a bit, and a mandate for HARC and/or staff to start advising and educating applicants, for everyone to be less remote and magisterial, and instead be more helpful. All of this seems good and productive.

We heard many stories from business owners of apparent hardship dealing with HARC. It started to look as though perhaps there really has been a problem here. We were astonished to find that HARC offers, to a failing or potential applicant, NO advice on how to meet the requirements of the Ordinance. City staff also seemed to be unable to offer help. This is not what we had believed, but then it becomes clear that this story is so far poorly told.

To learn the things we learned, only in the course of an active Council session, with full legislative power running, frankly is pathetic.

All these business people may just have a really good point to make, but clever as they all are, and talk to each other as they do, still they have failed utterly to make their plight known to the town at large. How in the world do they expect to market to us and to strangers if they cannot even let us know they’re in trouble and ask for help?

We suspect that business people and fellow travelers deliberately engineered this fight as a method of change, and grandstanded the politically outlandish move to abolish HARC, as a way of waking up the political process. If so, they made a lot of hard work for a lot of good people. If it turns out they have a good cause, we’ll presumably forgive them for this. But let’s make this the last time.

The great gain from the evening for all sides of the debate is that a workshop attitude and political will has taken hold. Finally all sides can share their points of view, and brainstorm together. There is a great revelation that everyone is passionate for the success of the Square, and all that remains is for ways and means to become clear and deployed.

We believe that the City has a business plan in action for the Square, protected by political process. We also note that every business person on the Square probably has a business plan also, and each one of those plans almost certainly contains benchmarks to tell if the business is succeeding or failing.

We wonder if the City’s business plan has such benchmarks. At what level of investment should the Square begin to show some return? It’s time to come up with these numbers.

We begin to think also that it’s time for the City to pull in some Heritage Tourists to the Square. We could use the energy and initiative of the businesspeople in this endeavor. It may be time for businesses on the Square to plan promotional themes, and for the City to give them backing and advertising, perhaps.

At any rate, we welcome the advent of a workshop culture in Georgetown at this crucial moment in the Square’s development. We at don’t really want to fight or argue or protest. What we always wanted to do was provide a little information. We have a newspaper devoted to local matters that comes out twice a week, with impressive levels of journalistic ability, and still the town is starving for information. There’s too much going on.

We will help. Stay tuned 🙂


2 replies

  1. First, I would like to thank all those that spoke on behalf of HARC, several of you hit the nail on the head in my opinion. Rick Williamson in particular must have been reading my mind. I chose not to speak at the council meeting since the criticism of HARC was getting personal and I did not want to divert attention from the importance of the Design Guidelines and the review process by a non biased public board.

    There was valid criticism of the process of design review as it currently exists. The applicant is often confused and runs into delays that affect business. HARC has instituted changes over the years to make the process more user friendly but more needs to be done. Yes, minor projects can and are reviewed by staff, often approved by myself, or submitted to sub committee for quick review.

    The problem arises when a complicated or large project comes forward. HARC has adopted a ‘conceptual review’ process where by an applicant can come forward with a plan and receive input on relevant guidelines. The problem is that HARC needs sufficient detail (architectural plans, specifications or color renderings with size an scale) to make any kind of relevant opinion.

    The reality of the HARC process is that an applicant makes contact with city staff, receives the guidelines, and is instructed on what is necessary to make a ‘complete’ application (number of pictures, detail required, etc). The staff does give some guidance if asked about which guidelines might apply. If the applicant makes a complete application to HARC for a certificate of design compliance, then 5 days before the next scheduled meeting, usually more like 2 or 3, a packet describing the application, with supporting documents is supplied to the HARC members. It is at this point that members have had a chance to study the application. It is not until the applicant comes before HARC that any suggestions or comments or vote is taken. Almost all of the time, the applications are approved. It is usually only when a large infill project, or a controversial application like Romeo’s comes to HARC for approval that the public becomes involved.

    In Romeo’s case, I was asked by Rebecca Rowe (historic reviewer) if we could skip the August meeting and have instead the sign subcommittee meet because all she had was several ‘minor’ sign applications. I agreed. Then the packet came out with the drawing of the first Romeo’s sign. Hardly a ‘minor’ project and in my opinion deserved a review by the full commission and public input. Bear in mind this is 3 days before we meet. I invited all commissioners to attend and we had a quorum for the meeting. The sign application came with a recommendation for denial from staff. After the applicant presented their sign, they then suggested an alternative sign design. I ruled that it was significantly different, and would have to be presented at a full commission meeting for review and consideration. I’m sure the applicant was frustrated at this point that they were not able to get a ruling on the sign. I felt that the sign needed to be reviewed, guidelines studied and that the public deserved a chance to weigh in. In the September meeting, the same scenerio followed, the applicant determined that the original sign design was destined to fail suggesting then an alternate sign…. a ‘blade’ sign that projects from the building. No time to review, no time to study, not time to determine the definition of a new type of sign and the effect an exception to the guidelines governing a projecting sign, no time for public comment. Again, I ruled that the sign was too different from the original to be considered an alteration and must be re submitted. I offered to hold a special meeting to accomodate their timelines. AS of today, no new sign designs have been submitted.

    I agree that a process of ‘handholding’ of supplying the applicants with detailed guidance on where the guidelines apply and what they might do to meet them is necessary. This should be at the staff level, since HARC commissioners are volunteers all holding full time jobs that occupy them. However, in the Romeo’s case, it is my opinion that staff mislead the applicant into a false state of compliance resulting in frustration and the resulting furor over HARC’s ‘subjective’ use of the guidelines to deny the application.

    I have had a discussion with Rebecca and Bobby Ray over the importance of applying the guidelines fairly and consistently to all and the importance of communication between staff and HARC regarding upcoming projects. Obviously, more needs to be done.

    I do endorse a spirit of compromise, and think the staff, HARC and the City Council need to be on the same page. It is possible that the realities are that city staff is too easily swayed by political pressure and HARC is not. It is clear to me though, that some compromise must be worked out hopefully saving HARC’s effectiveness and independence.

    Again, thank you for your interest in the downtown, and your comments at the city council meeting.

    Mike Sparks
    Chairman, HARC

  2. Actually thank YOU, Mike for all your work to date, and for these comments, I appreciate the time you took to offer this infomation.

    You know, I talked with the owner of Romeo’s yesterday, and I didn’t quite get that full story of the sequence of events. No one has ever made clear that the first application came with a recommendation for DENIAL from staff. Why even bother to apply with the dice so loaded?

    My sense is that Romeo’s feel that neither staff nor HARC has given them any help – they don’t appreciate your actions as help of course, but then they can’t be expected to see it the way we see it. But how staff could lead them along and let them down like that baffles me.

    I do wonder how much of the later events of this story were engineered for maximum damage to the applicant – I don’t really think in a conscious, conspiratorial way, I think more in a passive-agressive, “oh HARC’s pushing us around again, woe is us” kind of way, and they just let the hardship build without trying a new approach to solve it.

    I’m not impressed by the adolescence of the eruption that finally occurred. All these dynamic business people with all their energy, and Council members holding legislative power, and still they seem to have simmered in helpless frustration for a long time. And it took poor Romeo’s becoming a disaster story to give them the strength to exercise all that power. It’s good the townspeople are also involved, this could get out of hand easily. But how childish it seems, and with such important stakes.

    Personally I think a large sense of “workshop” came out of the meeting yesterday, and I want to help build on that and encourage some cross-pollination and positive brainstorming between all the sides of this discussion. I believe all the town wants the Square to be a supreme success, and yet I think the town in its general population knows very little of the long, intelligent, effort that underpins the Square.

    Anyway. It’s true that I never until this little episode understood how much we owe to you, and your past and present volunteers on HARC, but I do offer you my deepest gratitude and respect.

    Ross Hunter