News | Best-Laid Plans? One of Becker’s blueprints is stacked with east-siders 

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Living up to a much-publicized campaign promise, Mayor Ralph Becker has begun his redo of Salt Lake City’s planning and zoning department in earnest. That makeover looks a lot like something the “Blueprint Man” of campaign days would be proud of—styled with a heavy daub of public input and a thick application of new committees.

So far, there’s an internal advisory committee. And a development committee. And a citizen review committee. “This is really an important part of the change process,” says Mary De La Mare-Schafer, the interim director of Community and Economic Development. “If we just change where our planners sit and what their functions are and don’t integrate with the community, we miss our mark.” This was also the sentiment of the recently published Citygate audit, which blasted the old planning process.

So, the city will be hosting community forums on planning issues. As for the citizen review committee, some planning commissioners worry that the panel is too weighted with members from the east side. Minutes from recent commission meetings reflect that concern; several of the east-siders on the committee also supported Becker for mayor. Others still wonder how much influence the new committees will have.

The changes have been, and still are, being crafted mostly by the transition “planning leadership team” duo of Schaefer and Esther Hunter. Schaefer has been with the city since last spring, but Becker tapped Hunter only recently. Her experience has been in citizen activism and as a leader of the Salt Lake City Coalition for Orderly Development, a community group that has challenged the city on what it sees as permissive granting of conditional use permits that skirt zoning ordinances. The organization has also fought the spread of “monster homes” in the Avenues.

“I was a community activist,” Hunter says. “I first met Ralph during the election. I was a little irate one night and around 2 a.m. sent all the candidates an email with my concerns. The next morning Ralph was the only one to have written me back.”

As for work experience, Hunter has been a life-skills coach and has owned an “eye-therapy” business, where exercising eye movements are done to help treat everything from ADHD to depression.

As an activist, Hunter has assisted Schaefer in crafting the citizen review committee, a kind of citizen check on the planning ordinance process. The development committee represents the business community and the internal advisory committee is staffed with volunteers from the city’s existing departments.

But the citizen committee is causing the most buzz in City Hall.

As of late last week, all but one of the five seats on the panel had been filled by an east-bench resident. Member Shane Carlson was recruited from Hunter’s Coalition for Orderly Development. Polly Hart, chairwoman of the Capitol Hill Community Council, sits on a subcommittee of the panel. She was on Becker’s campaign and donated more than $3,000 to him (though comparatively, not a huge portion of Becker’s war chest).

“Myself and others encouraged the mayor to have as broad-based a citizen group as possible,” says Planning Commissioner Prescott Muir. “That’s the challenge with anything in government—to encourage citizen participation. But we just wanted to encourage representation from all constituencies as well as geographically.”

Muir says concerns about the committee’s composition are still under discussion, but overall he is pleased with the changes. “I think it’s positive what they’re doing. The mayor has made us one of his top priorities.”

When asked about committee membership being weighted with east-siders, Becker responds “I don’t know where all the members are from, but I know it started as a smaller group and that the objective is to get broad representation.”

Committee member Hart believes any imbalance is due to a lack of west-side activists. “The coalition has worked very hard at trying to recruit west-side activists, but it has been a struggle,” she says. Hart believes fewer west-side homeowners, as compared to renters, make for fewer neighborhood activists who feel they have a stake in the process.

The role of the committee also seems to be one lacking a clear consensus. The mayor’s office insists the citizen committee will be only temporary, until the city sets a clear agenda for long-term planning. “These are people with specific projects, that we knew we could put to work,” Schaefer says. “We wanted to capture their detail and bring it into the organization, but they are also all just ad hoc.”

“[The committee] is a large and growing group,” Becker says. “We just wanted to involve those most vocally unhappy with the old zoning process, but it’s purely just for feedback and advice.” Hunter agrees, and emphasizes the committee’s role is more of a sounding board and less for crafting policy and influencing priorities. “I think influence is too strong of a word,” Hunter says.

But Hart is fine with the word “influence,” especially when asked whether the citizen committee would play an equal role alongside the planning commission and other boards.

Hart says the committee will wield influence “because Mary [Schaefer] has been incredibly responsive to community interests and requests and because Esther [Hunter] is a former community activist. Both are very interested in seeing a more balanced process. I don’t think either of them is interested in seeing community members run rampant at city hall, but they both want to see an open process.”

For Hart, citizen contribution is necessary to change the course of pre-Becker city planning. “If from the beginning we can create projects that work to help the developer and community, a lot of acrimony will be spared.”

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