National Blog Month, or why I’ve not been writing about deer and zoning

In the past few months, I’ve made several false starts on this blog, writing about the things that keep me from my sleep.  And I’ve discarded them all.

Part of the reason for these discards goes back to my initial commitment – that I wouldn’t write about issues facing City Council.  I made that decision because I didn’t want any reader to get the idea that my mind was firmly made up before a decision came to the Council table.  And on those issues, I want to continue learning and researching right up to (and sometimes beyond) the night the Council votes.

Maybe you cannot imagine how difficult this task is.  I sometimes think that, working hard to learn all about an issue is the easy part – not closing my mind to alternative viewpoints is the truly painful task.

I’ve skirted my self-imposed rule several times – once when I wrote about what I’d learn about deer management, and again when I wrote about zoning and private property.

I’ve attempted to maintain a positive view, even when I’ve been frustrated by national and state-wide politics.  And I’ve seriously avoided writing about local politics.  It’s the decent thing to do.

A part of me wants to shout, ‘I’m taking off the gloves!’ Perhaps that’s because it has been a particularly rough couple of months.  I have had to weigh my commitment to this community and seek to find a way to reach a defensible decision on issues as complex as killing deer – when I live with the deer so cheerfully – and approving the construction of more housing – when the increased demand for housing keeps driving up the cost of housing, making it harder and harder for people to live here.

I’m going to stick to my personal vows.  But before I conclude, here are some more tidbits to digest:

On the deer

The Council has already taken a position on whether to kill the deer.  It reached that conclusion last August.  At the same time, the Council made a commitment to find a way to allow a deer cull, by either implementing a moratorium on the ordinance regarding firing weapons in the City or by changing the ordinance.

There are those who state that contraception cannot work on a deer population that moves freely.  That’s an interesting assertion, as we haven’t defined what we expect a cull or contraception to accomplish (the City Council endorsed both efforts).

Killing deer removes those deer’s reproductive capacity, forever.  As a view of the future, that means that 100 does won’t have 100+ fawns the next year; and those does and fawns won’t have more fawns the year after that or the year after that.  Deer make babies, that’s all there is to it.  Killing 100 deer one time won’t make a long-term difference; killing deer every year will result in a smaller deer population.

Contraception also affects deer’s reproductive capacity.  As does sterilization.  If contraception is used on the same deer, year after year, those deer don’t reproduce at their previous rate.  In fact, their reproductive capacity (as a group) nearly ends.  Of course, if deer are sterilized, there reproductive capacity becomes an effective zero.  (There are a few documented failures.)  Unlike the culled deer, however, they remain on their teritory with their family groups.  Other deer don’t migrate in as fast.

Killing deer creates an immediate drop in the deer population; migration from outside the area and between subareas still occurs.  Sterilizing deer creates an immediate drop in population growth, but does not affect the number of deer already in the area.  Using contraception on deer also causes an immediate drop in population growth, but must be repeated every year or every other year on the same deer, so deer must be tagged and tracked and monitored into the the future.

Deer that are sterilized or given anaesthetic / tranquilizer and then a contraceptive shot may die.  Shooting deer absolutely means the deer will die.

Council members have accepted the responsiblity for these deer, just as I have for my cats or – sadly – for those mice I trap in my house.  I don’t know any gleeful members of Council, when it comes to this decision.

On zoning and site plans

Zoning is considered a legislative role; because it’s about the law, the Council votes twice on zoning changes.  If the council turns down a proposed zoning change at first reading, they are also deciding that they don’t want to hold a public hearing or allow the public to publicly influence their decision.

Site plans apply that zoning.  Site plans may be discussed by Council separately from zoning; the zoning may already be established, and the site plan then implements what the zoning allows.

One of the problems we face is that zoning necessarily uses a 6 inch paint brush to define what our community will look like in the future.  Site plans follow, adding the fine detail.  But the shape of the community has already been determined by the zoning.

Some cities, in an attempt to seriously control the shape of their community, create smaller and more precise zoning categories.  Some rely on the good will and economic self-interest of developers.  Ann Arbor has been more inclined toward that latter view.  Local developers and architects may have a self-interest in improving the quality of life in our town; other developers may have more self-interest  in building something that has a greater, more immediate financial return on their investments.

From time to time, someone will ask ‘why do you allow out-of-town developers (or the University of Michigan) to buy up all this land?’  The answer, of course, is that the City generally has no say.  Private financial arrangements – including sale of land – do not receive the City’s permission, nor do such deals need it.

At other times, someone will ask ‘why are you (the City) building all these buildings?’  The City isn’t building them – private property owners on private property are building because they believe there is a demand for what they are building.  Housing, office, hotel – all of these can be in demand for years before the market determines that the potential profit has increased sufficiently and that building more of what is in demand now makes sense.  There can be a lag of more than 5 years between the time a need is identified and new construction occurs to satisfy that need.

It is not legal for the City to delay a project, to reject it if it fits the zoning in all its particulars, or to create insurmountable barriers to development.

It is incumbent on the City, though, to create well-defined master planning documents that can guide the direction in which the community wants to grow.  And to confirm from time to time that there remains support for pursuing those goals.

Enough about that.

If you want to think about the problems the City faces and find ways to address those problems, invite me to have a cup of tea or coffee with you.  Remain civil even as we try to find common ground.  Repeat until we have reached an agreement.

And remember that those of us in public life chose it – hopefully for the best of reasons.

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