For the first time in a long time, I spent almost all of last Thursday afternoon sitting through a City of Dallas Planning Commission meeting. Although there was, as usual, many planning and zoning issues on the agenda, the council chambers were packed that day for one important item: the proposed rezoning of a 2+ acre parcel at the southwest corner of Walnut Hill Lane and Inwood Road.
Considered by many to be one of the most contentious rezonings to affect this Preston Hollow neighborhood in decades, there were clearly lines drawn in the sand; the passion and emotion for both sides of the argument were profound when the public comment session opened on the floor.
Having not sat through a rezoning meeting in some time, I had forgotten just how much time and effort 15 regular citizens in Dallas put forth on what may seem to some as fairly insignificant issues. In the four or five cases that preceded the Ursuline case, commissioners questioned applicants and their attorneys/counselors on the most intricate details of setbacks, landscaping, access, and so on. I could tell by the questions asked that nothing is taken for granted.
But once the relatively routine matters were heard, the opposing sides of the chamber began their cases for and against the Ursuline rezoning.
If you haven’t heard any details of the case, the Ursuline Academy, an all-girls, Catholic private school, is in dire need for an on-site, lighted athletic field, primarily for its winter sports of lacrosse and soccer.
In the world of girl’s soccer, Ursuline is legendary: 22 consecutive state titles. But despite those successes, they had no regulation field for either practice or play—specifically at night. So they designed what several speakers termed a “one-of-a-kind” lighted athletic field: 4 feet below grade, new trees, no PA system, no permanent structures, no new parking spaces, only 50 moveable bleacher seats, and, most important, eight, totally unique, custom-designed 45-foot lights.
Yet despite these efforts to mitigate the most obvious effects of the new field, e.g., noise, traffic and lights (and Ursuline had experts in each of these areas available for questions), opposition from neighboring property owners was pronounced, passionate, and very well organized.
But here’s my point: After hearing both Ursuline’s and the opposition’s cases, the commissioners asked a series of well thought out and specific questions that required detailed responses from the applicant, its consultants, the staff and the city attorney. The commissioners came at the problems at hand with an equal level of concern—and passion—exhibited by both Ursuline and the opposition.
When the motion to approve the lighted athletic field was made, Commissioner Michael Schwartz (appointed by Council Member Ann Margolin—this is in her District 13 ) amended the motion to omit the lights. What then ensued between the commissioners was a outwardly respectful, polite discussion—OK, it was a debate—to keep the lights. When the vote was taken, Schwartz’s amended motion (to omit the lights) was defeated 9-6. Then, after more, equally spirited discussion and debate among the commissioners, the original motion (i.e., to include the lighted athletic field, with some minor modifications) was put to the floor. That motion passed 14-1, with Schwartz dissenting.
From my back row of the chambers, I saw my government at work. Regular citizens participating in a highly regulated environment that touches the lives of the very constituents it is designed to regulate, protect, and represent. The commissioners’ vote to approve the lighted field is clearly not popular for some, but certainly popular with others—certainly the 50 or so uninformed Ursuline girls that sat patiently and silently through five hours of regulations, laws, and procedures . What a great out of class, practical lesson in democracy this afternoon was for them.
Maybe I am totally naïve, but what I saw seemed to really work. All of the deliberations by the appointed commissioners were thoughtful, respectful, and compassionate to the parties involved, despite being very disappointing to the neighborhood opposition.
Sometime soon the Dallas City Council, composed by the same types of dutiful citizens, will hear this case for approval. I am sure the chambers will be filled again by both sides of the issue, each with equal measures of passion. If you want to get a glimpse what your city officials do every day, take the time and join me in the back of the chambers to watch—and be thankful for—our government at work.
Chuck Dannis is co-founder of Crosson Dannis Inc., which provides real estate appraisal and consultation services for many of the nation’s largest real estate lenders and owners. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.