January 19, 2015 (Council Chambers, 220 Clay St, Cedar Falls, IA 50613)
There's no shortage of agenda items this week. We cover a 4-way stop request, the 2016 budget, rental ordinances, POTUS visit... and that's just part of the Committee agenda.
- Committee of the Whole (4:50pm, Council Chamber, ELECTRONIC AGENDA & PACKET) -
1) 4-Way Stop - Citizens are requesting a 4-way stop at the intersection of Center Street and Lone Tree Road. Before installing a four-way stop, the Federal Highway Administration Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices suggest a traffic study be performed to analyze traffic volume, turning patterns, pedestrian accommodation, among other things. Considering the intersection, I enthusiastically endorse the study. A four-way stop is one of many tools to consider. Often times, 'stops' give the illusion of safety under the assumption that drivers (a) don't make errors and (b) follow the rules of the road. I hope we explore all options to improve flow, safety, and aesthetics of the intersection. As several studies have recommended, this North Cedar entry point is a great candidate for a roundabout.
2) FY2016 Budget - With this item, we discuss tax rates to support the FY2016 budget (starting June 1). It is perfectly possible that this will be a 0% tax increase year. Commercial properties may experience a significant decrease (due in part to the State's rollback) of (7.53%). We are in a good budget position, credit is due to council and staff commitment to operating cost containment and reduction.
3) Low head dam - Cedar Falls has a notorious low-head dam, an extremely dangerous river feature (major drowning hazard). The Iowa DNR is aggressively trying to deconstruct the the dams out of river ways through the Dam Mitigation program (the DNR maintains jurisdiction over waterways). We will review a couple options focusing on design improvements in coordination with other river improvement efforts such as river bank stabilization and whitewater park improvements for kayakers, anglers, and waders. The city expects a $50,000 grant for planning and design efforts.
4) Single Family Conversion Ordinance Changes - We explore sweeping amendments to our current code of ordinances to support the laudable goal to preserve single family neighborhood character. It is widely believed that neighborhood character requires a healthy balance of rental and owner-occupied units. It is my fear that this ordinance will increase the proliferation of rental homes and all-but assures maximum allowable impermeable surface in backyards solidifying the property as a rental home for near eternity. More sensible solutions have been suggested in this blog, the rental task force and the community in general.
It seems the hypothesis goes like this... if we enforce our codes, impose a moratorium, reduce allowable occupancy and pave backyards, we will achieve the goal. To prove a hypothesis, you must test it. We can't test the hypothesis any longer because we have confounding variables, cause and effect can't be evaluated. We are now acting with guns ablazen', we are shooting shotguns at the hip.
First, we've been actively enforcing codes since summer of 2014 creating 300+ citations. Not amazingly, property owners (owner occupants and landlords) have complied. Most people report neighborhood nuisances are being resolved. Code Enforcement is working for all parties involved. In retrospect, we should have been enforcing housing codes to a greater degree for the last several years, perhaps we wouldn't be having this conversation.
The moratorium's effect can best be summarized as having contributed to a major slow down in real estate sales and prices in the core neighborhoods, an unnecessary market intervention that distracted task force members and staff of pursing more thoughtful policy.
Now let's deal with the proposed changes:
- Change the definition of family - this is good, our old definition was very victorian, to say it pleasantly
- Reduce maximum occupancy to 3 unrelated individuals for most existing rentals, unless the property can be shown to have the carrying capacity for 4 (greater than 8000 sq ft lot and 70' of frontage, very few houses will apply)
- Reduce maximum occupancy to 2 unrelated individuals for new occupancy permits
- Requires that all parking areas be hard-surfaced (~$5,000-$10,000 per drive)
- Diminishes property rights for majority of single family units
What's the long-term impact? By reducing occupancy, we limit supply. Limited supply causes prices to increase. Higher prices are a signal to investors to convert more houses to rentals. Rentals proliferate. Even worse, the new ordinance will require all properties to eventually have hard-surface on their drives and parking spots, we will achieve maximum allowable impermeable surface further eroding single family character. If our goal is to preserve character, we are doing the exact opposite - we are changing the character.
But maybe, just maybe this is the real sinister intent. We pass the ordinance. The regulations downsize maximum occupancy of single family home. Displaced renters are forced into a tight supply situation made worse by the rule of 2 conversion on new occupancy permits. An entire economic class (not just students) is forced to live beyond the borders of Cedar Falls, while the owners of multi-unit complexes (the last feasible living choice) raise rents, bankrupt citizens and enjoy new found luxuries all at the hands of government regulation. We will have achieved our goal of more owner-occupied, single family homes, but only through an act of inconspicuous discrimination.
5) Gigabit City - If you didn't hear, the most powerful person in the world stopped by our great city to recognize our gigabit city
accomplishment. Our past and present leaders of the Board of Utilities Trustees, Councils and CFU employees have done a remarkable job managing the day-to-day operations while also anticipating the future needs/demands of its customers. In this committee update we explore how can we leverage our unique standing in the world into greater economic opportunity for our community. Our community assets compare to any in the world, the President has taken notice, business and industry follow, we just need to communicate our story!
-Regular Council Meeting (7:00pm, Council Chamber, ELECTRONIC AGENDA & PACKET)-
E) This item is a continuation of the Committee meeting's occupancy reduction proposal. It's rare and suspect that we would act so quickly on this proposal, just a few minutes after Committee discussion. Even so, there will be 2 more readings before it is final, please opine if you have thoughts.
Special Order of Business
F.1) With this item, we spell out driveway requirements for design, hard surface materials and minimum parking. There are reasonable recommendations, but I take exception to the hard surfacing and the new requirement that duplexes have 'visitor' parking. I'm not sure when we determined that the street has no carrying capacity, but it does. To ignore this fact, is to ignore the purpose of streets altogether. In Cedar Falls, they are used for transit, parking and even water storage.
H.2.g) This item establishes a fundraising plan and target for the Richard Hunt roundabout sculpture on Ridgeway Avenue. The Public Art Committee has committed to raising $100,000, the city will contribute certain TIF revenues consistent with landscaping costs. This will be a signature art piece, a defining feature of our city's renowned public art. I will be contributing, I hope you will consider it too!
- Nick's Briefs -
Tragedy In Iowa
It is with great sadness that I report the loss of a local reform advocate, Benton Mackenzie. Benton is a fellow Iowan from Davenport. Benton was suffering from a rare, painful skin cancer. Assisted by his family, Benton grew marijuana to treat his cancer and pain. Benton and his family were prosecuted by the Scott County attorney's office and convicted of drug manufacturing, among other things. Benton did jail time, but was released on leniency (he was dying). Benton died with his family at his side last week.
In part, I suggested that council study this issue to prevent the city's role in the prosecution of innocent people, people that have not committed crimes against another person or property. Who is to say that our county attorney, Tom Ferguson, wouldn't prosecute with the same zeal as Scott County?
So I am so pleased that 5 of our 7 council members agreed to discuss the issue. On a narrow, 3-4 vote, the council decided not to prioritize our enforcement efforts to those of greatest importance to our citizens (like housing and rental codes!). In my last post, I conducted a Decriminalization Survey. The results... 75% support the measure. Just days ago, Attorney General Eric Holder banned state and local law enforcement from using civil asset forfeiture under federal laws except in a few, narrow cases. Civil asset forfeiture, a product of the drug war, is a favorite tool of many policing agencies across the country. The drug war is local, and its immorality and adverse civil liberty impact is coming to light.
It was through Benton's story that I decided to stop hoping and start acting. No dying person should be denied medicine. No person should be locked up as he was. Doctors take the Hippocratic oath, which is understood to mean 'first cause no harm'. Politicians would be well-served to consider a similar oath in their legislation, or at minimum, conduct an economic and personal liberty cost-benefit evaluation of their decisions, past and present.