ONARCHITECTURE- Big Squeaky Wheel: Neighbors form new alliance


Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris welcomes the newly formed Alliance of Neighborhoods. "Right now," he says, " the squeakiest wheels tend to get the grease, and that's not always fair."FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO

When local government cooks up some plan–say, a brand new reservoir, a new YMCA, or a Downtown Mall brick replacement project– doesn't it always seem like public concern, and often outrage, comes when construction is about to begin, or when an approved plan has moved into its final phase? Folks complain that they weren't informed about the plan, or weren't aware of the details, while government officials insist there was sufficient public notice and community input. 

That dynamic may be a thing of the past if a new group has its way. 

"This issue seems to grow year by year," says Jack Brown, a history professor at UVA and spokesman for the new group, Alliance of Neighborhoods. Brown believes that projects like the proposed water supply plan, Albemarle Place, and the replacement of sewer and water infrastructure became problematic long after they were first announced because we have a "divided government" made up of the city, county, and UVA. 

"There are issues that simply can't be addressed when we have this divided government," he says. "We want to encourage neighborhood associations to bridge the city-county-UVA divide."

Brown says Alliance founders "decided that neighborhoods were too split up," and that some neighborhood associations "were too weak." Brown says the mission of the Alliance is to strengthen existing neighborhood associations (he says homeowner's association are also welcome to join), help create new ones, and bring them all together so that collectively they can speak with a louder voice to government. 

As an example of a recent project that needs greater public input, Brown cites the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority's Meadow Creek sewer line upgrade project, which will replace 22,800 linear feet of old piping and require 69 easements from city property owners. 

"The RWSA has not really done sufficient public outreach on this project," says Brown. The Alliance, he explains, would be an organization the RWSA or any other government entity could come to for help in getting the word out, to let people know about the specific project details and how it will eafect them. 

The group has already won fans among elected officials.

"I like the fact that they're trying to bring together city and county residents to work on issues of mutual concern," says Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris. "The arbitrary city-county divide in Virginia is a profoundly disfunctional one, and we need to be working together more across jurisdictional lines."

As Norris points out, Virginia is one of the few remaining states in the country that operate under this "artificial" city-county divide, where the governments and services of each run separately and are often duplicated, even though they serve the same general populace. While Norris cites the city-county Revenue Sharing Agreement as a saving grace, he suggests the two entities are more often at odds and jockeying for position on projects and plans that affect the same people. 

In an ideal world, Charlottesville would simply be a part of Albemarle County and all services would be combined, says Norris. 

"But that isn't going to happen anytime soon," he acknowledges. "We're wedded to this idea that cities and counties have to be wedded to each other." 

As a result, it can be more difficult for citizens to unravel what's going on city-county wide, never mind making their voices heard.

Indeed, as Norris points out, "Right now, the squeakiest wheels tend to get the grease, and that's not always fair."

In fact, if you had to boil down the Alliance's mission statement to a catch-phrase, you could say they want to be "One Big Squeaky Wheel."

As Brown says, "This organization will make sure the voices of neighborhoods will get significant amplification." 

County supervisor Ken Boyd had not yet heard of the new organization, but like Norris, he says, he welcomes its input.

"I'm always in favor of our citizens being involved in our government," he says. 

However, Boyd points out that many attempts have already been made over the years to organize the neighborhood associations in the county, most to no avail. Still, there are some existing collaborative efforts already in place between the county, city and UVA, he points out, and he hopes the Alliance will take advantage of such connections.

Norris says the city has "made good strides in recent years" to keep the public better informed, but adds "there's always room for improvement."

However, the Alliance's mission won't be easy, says Norris. 

"The challenge for any group like this," he explains, " is to sustain the energy it needs to keep functioning for the long haul."

   To that end, Brown hopes that eventually individual neighborhood associations will take over the organization, which is now made up of 8-10 interim board members, including president Bruce Odell from the Martha Jefferson neighborhood, treasurer Paul Brant from the Belmont neighborhood, and secretary and long-time squeaky wheel Colette Hall from the Downtown neighborhood. 

"Anybody who cares about the strength of neighborhood life and public policy in the area are encouraged to join," says Brown. And though the Alliance may be squeaky, Brown says that doesn't mean it has to be whiny or oppositional.

 In fact, he wants the Alliance to remain independent and strictly nonpartisan. "We don't want to be obstructionist," he says. "We want to be a positive force."

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If you're interested in joining, or simply finding out more, the Alliance's first meeting will take place on Tuesday, December 9 at the County Office Building, room 246, from 6-8pm. You're also welcome to contact Jack Brown at 434-962-9790 or jkb6d@virginia.edu or check out the Alliance's website at www.allianceofneighborhoods.org.

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5 comments

Good article, Dave. One correction though: You have me saying "We're wedded to this idea that cities and counties have to be wedded to each other," when what I actually said was more along the lines of "We're wedded to this idea that cities and counties have to be INDEPENDENT of each other," which is the gist of my gripe about the disfunctional system that we have here in Virginia (as the rest of your article makes clear). Thanks.

Thanks to Dave McNair for covering the Alliance. This is the result of a lot of hard work from some very dedicated and talented individuals, and is definitely a huge step in the right direction.

Agreed with Dave Norris on the dysfunctional nature (and, I would add, utter stupidity) of the city/county divide. I'm president of the Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association, which is located primarily in the city. However, I live in the oldest, most historic part of the neighborhood, which is located in the county-- it's the portion that Charlottesville "forgot" to annex in the early 60s. The city/county line runs across my front yard.

The Woolen Mills will be getting our national and state register historic district soon, and then some form of local district after that. Sadly though, the county portion will be left unprotected because the county is lagging so far behind the city in preservation efforts. Short of seceding from the county, our hilltop has been left with zero options. Thank goodness for great City folks like Dave Norris and Mary Joy Scala-- otherwise the entire neighborhood would be sunk.

If the city is interested in getting ample public input, it should cease the practice of holding joing public hearings with the Planning Commission. If citizens only hear of an issue AFTER it goes to the PC, the council will not allow any public speech in its meetings since it has already had a public hearing. The practice of holding joint public hearings is less than ten years old. Also, council's attendance at these joint public hearings leave a great deal to be desired.

Dave,

Looking back at my notes I see I did have you saying wedded to each other instead of independent of each other...of course, that's not to say you didn't say or mean independent...could of just been my thought process, as I kept thinking that all you were telling me sounded like a BAD marriage. And yes, the city and county are required to be independent, but in reality they are wedded, wether they like it or not, no?

Still, sorry to have got your meaning wrong...and thanks for the post correcting it.

Dave McNair

The area should have a web page for all proposals on a time ine with a message board under each one so that the debate can be held over a course of months. That way most questions are answered by the time a formal hearing is held. Seems easy, inexpensive and logical. Perhaps the computer classes at the local community collge could design and monitor it for credt.