I’m Posting Every Week in 2011!

I’ve decided I want to blog more. Rather than just thinking about doing it, I’m starting right now. I will be posting on this blog once a week for all of 2011.

I know it won’t be easy, but it might be fun, inspiring, awesome and wonderful. Therefore I’m promising to make use of The DailyPost, and the community of other bloggers with similar goals, to help me along the way, including asking for help when I need it and encouraging others when I can.

If you already read my blog, I hope you’ll encourage me with comments and likes, and good will along the way.

Eric C. Cohen

Posted in Blog Stuff | Tagged | 1 Comment

Tuckahoe Main Street, or I’ve Got the PDD Blues Again

Last night I spent an instructive couple of hours listening to the developers of the so-called “Tuckahoe Main Street” explain their proposal (basically a strip mall with some apartments, greenery and sidewalk cafes thrown in as window dressing), as well as the responses of quite a few Tuckahoe residents. The reason I found it so instructive was that it helped clarify my thinking on the subject of Planned Development Districts or PDDs. Until now, I had  what could best be called a “feeling” that PDDs were generally not as beneficial to the community as they were intended to be. Now, I understand why I had that feeling, and that it’s right on the money.

Here’s some background for those of you who don’t follow the “planning” game as it’s played in the Town of Southampton, NY. PDDs, are usually proposed by developers who want to use a parcel, or parcels, of land in a way that does not conform to the current zoning of those parcels. Rather than ask the Town to change the zoning outright, which would be a difficult process, with little chance of success, the developer can propose that the Town create an “overlay district”  or PDD, that would not change, but rather overlay the existing zoning. A PDD applies only to the parcels in question, and, theoretically at least, does not create a precedent that might lead other land owners in the area to also demand a rezoning of their properties. In return for granting the PDD, the Town is supposed to receive some “community benefits or amenities” from the developer, perhaps some parkland, open space or the inclusion of some affordable housing on the site. Granted, this is a simplistic explanation, but I think it covers the most important ground.

The 12.4-acre site of the Tuckahoe project consists of 4.4 acres currently zoned for residential development, and an eight-acre parcel zoned for highway business. Neither of these zoning classifications allow for the type of mixed-use development being proposed. Consequently, the developer has asked the Town Board to consider creating a MUPDD, (Mixed-Use Planned Development District) in which such a development would be permitted.

Tuckahoe Main Street Plan

The developer's preliminary plan for the Tuckahoe Main Street PDD

That’s the background. Now back to our story.

Not too long ago I was fortunate enough to attend a training session at the Project for Public Spaces in New York City. I owe my good fortune to the community group Save Sag Harbor for sponsoring my attendance there. The staff at PPS specialize in something they call placemaking, which is basically the art and science of creating livable places where people enjoy being. As Main Streets are very important places in communities, we spent a good deal of time in our training learning what makes a good Main Street work as an integral part of a thriving community.  Of course this varies from town to town, but it always starts with a sense of place. The Main Street of a town or village has to reflect the history, values and aspirations of the community it serves.

When confronted with an unsuccessful place, say a dying Main Street in an aging town fighting against a proliferation of strip malls and suburban sprawl, the staff at PPS always starts by asking the community to identify what it is that is important, meaningful and useful in their town. They ask, “what works? What doesn’t? What’s worth preserving? What needs to be changed? What’s missing?” Only the people who live in a place can answer these question. Planners, no matter how skilled, cannot. Armed with this information, PPS can then make suggestions as to how to supplement and modify the working parts, integrating everything into a seamless whole that then has a chance of becoming a successful “place.”

Given the importance of the Main Street to any community, I could not help but apply some of my training in analyzing the “Tuckahoe Main Street” PDD. Three things were immediately obvious. First, this is not a Main Street in any traditional sense of the word. Second, the entire plan was conceived by the developer’s planning team without significant community input. Third, this was not a livable place where people would enjoy spending time. How could it be when the dominant feature was a 474-space parking lot?

I could go on for many paragraphs criticizing particulars of the design, but there is no point. The entire plan is ill conceived and should not go forward. But, I do not blame the developers for this. They are just doing what developers do. No, I fault our Town government for creating the tool that makes the kind of thinking behind Tuckahoe Main Street possible: the PDD.

Read the language in the section of the Town Code dealing with PDDs, and you would think this legislation is so pure and beneficial that only good could possibly come of it. Unfortunately, that has not proved to be the case. The reason why PDDs don’t work is simple: they don’t start with the community. Rather, they are a tool used by developers to be able to build what they want by simply making a small sacrifice in terms of providing some “community benefit or amenity.” The benefit extracted by the Town is supposed to ameliorate the damage to the community caused by the creation of the PDD, but rarely turns out to be more than a bandaid slapped on a gaping wound.

PDD’s don’t work because they ignore the basic tenets of good placemaking. To reiterate: first, find out what the community values, needs and aspires to, then preserve what is good in the community. Next, find ways to incentivize the development of any missing and needed features. And finally tie it all together with good planning to create a unified, livable, workable community, where people will want to be. The way PDDs work now, is to start with some “concept” put together by a developer that may or may not have any relation to anything the community actually needs. Then this “concept” is massaged into something that passes as “beneficial” in some way or another, and foisted on the community, often exacerbating existing problems. This is “planning” stood on its head. It starts with the result, and then tries to twist it to fit the need.

That’s what’s happening in Tuckahoe right now, and it’s a sham and a crime. The people of Tuckahoe deserve a say in whether their “Main Street” serves them or the needs of some developers and out-of-town merchants. This PDD should be denied. Then the entire PDD process should be revised to make it more responsive to the needs of the communities in which future PDDs are proposed.

What do you think? Leave a comment below telling me why I’m wrong or right, or how my ideas on this subject can be improved.

Posted in Development, Government | 13 Comments

The School Budget Passed. Now What?

OK, let me fess up right away: the title of this post is a bit misleading. Frankly, I used it to get your attention. If you thought that I would be writing something about the school district and fiscal responsibility, I apologize. That certainly is a worthwhile topic, and I may write about it someday…but not today. Today, I want to write about the teachers’ contract negotiations. More specifically, about people’s attitudes towards the teachers, and their contract negotiation.

One more disclaimer before I get to the point of this post: I neither have an interest in writing about the merits of the positions taken by the parties to the negotiation, nor about whether or not the teachers are asking for too much (or too little). These issues have been debated in the community for many months now, and I have nothing new to add. However, the fact that the teacher’s contract negotiations have been hotly debated in the community for many months — now that’s interesting. Does anyone debate your salary? Mine? The guy who delivers your mail? The clerk who checked you out at Walmart? The CEO of Exxon-Mobil? No, the only salaries that I can think of that get publicly (and hotly) debated are those of our public school teachers. Why is that?

Well, there is a simple answer — which no doubt has already occurred to you — but like most simple answers, it only appears to address the question, while missing the key point entirely. It’s because we get to vote on the school budget, the vast majority of which goes to the salaries of the people who work in the schools, most of whom are teachers. And, as we know, once the budget is passed, it becomes a tax bill that we have to pay. So, the argument goes, since we pay the teachers’ salaries, we have a right to have a say in how much they make. Sounds simple, right?

No, not really, since there’s an important question that no one is addressing: whose salaries don’t we pay? Whether it’s through taxes (e.g., the guys in the highway department or the clerk in the planning office), or via more direct transactions at Walmart, Amazon.com, or with a local handyman, we all pay each other’s salaries, through the money we spend or the taxes we pay. Where do you think the Schiavonis get the money to pay the workers at the IGA? They get it from you when you shop there, of course. If, next month they have to pay their workers higher wages, then they may have to charge you more for the meat, vegetables and dairy you buy. They have no other secret source of money with which to pay their workers. Neither does any other business. But, when was the last time there was a public debate about the produce manager’s salary? Or the plumber’s? (And, I think he definitely makes too much.) Does anyone write a letter to the editor criticizing the employees of the Variety Store because of a raise they asked for? And what about the CEO of Bridgehampton National Bank? I’ll bet the interest rate on my home equity loan would be lower if he made less.

What about the other (non-school) branches of government? After all, we pay the salaries of everyone in government with our tax dollars. The difference is that we don’t get to vote, even indirectly, on the salaries of the majority of government workers. However, we do get to vote on the school budget, and so we feel we have a right to decide how much teachers should earn. I’m sorry, but I think it is both logically and ethically indefensible to pick one group of employees out of all others and publicly criticize them for wanting the same thing that we all want: to make as much money as we can doing the jobs we’ve chosen to do.

At this point I have to say LOUDLY, that this has nothing to do with whether or not Sag Harbor’s teachers are greedy, selfish, or unreasonable. Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. In this discussion, that’s beside the point. Perhaps you were greedy, selfish and unreasonable the last time you negotiated with your boss. Shall we discuss that here? No, I didn’t think so.

Basically, what I’m saying folks, is this: get a grip. Teachers, just like the rest of us — including me and you — have the right to ask for what they think they need to live the lives they want to live, without being publicly pilloried for doing so. This is America, after all, where we all have the right to chase success, however we define it, in whatever way we choose.

Posted in Behavior, Schools, Taxes, Values | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Learning on the Job

Learning on the job is a good thing, right? So, the Sag Harbor School Board is to be commended for finally figuring out the fund-balance thing. You know, that pesky thing they have to figure out about how much padding to put in the budget to make sure they don’t run out of money in case there are unexpected expenses during the year. It’s hard because the State Education Department says you have to put something aside, but it can’t be too little and it can’t be too much. Up ’til last year, it seems, the Board has had trouble with the too much part. The limit used to be 2% of the total budget. Then recently it went up to 4%, but the Board just kept socking the dough away accumulating fund balances of more that 16% in at least one recent year. Then, as part of their learning process I guess, they let the pendulum swing the other way, letting the fund-balance get so low last year that they got a little slap-on-the-wrist letter from the State auditors.

But this year…this year they assure us they’ve got it figured out and the fund-balance, like little bear’s porridge, will be just right. As I said, learning on the job is good. I really mean that. Now, what about those accounting errors?  They are the other villain in this year’s budget scenario, yet the Board was a little less specific about those. However, the District’s new business official, Janet Verneuille, assures us she’s got a handle on it, and from the depth of knowledge she displayed at a recent budget presentation, I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. I’m also inclined to giver her a word to the wise…it’s not necessary to try to defend or even explain the mistakes of your predecessors. They were their mistakes, not yours. Defending them makes them look like your mistakes. Correct, don’t defend.

Which, by the way, is advice the School Board should take to heart as well. In the current political climate — yes, the School Board is political — you can’t win an argument with the public. The public is angry, and that anger is not aimed at anyone in specific. Are you an elected official? If the answer is yes, just assume that the public is pissed-off at you. The best thing you can do is to publicly accept your role in whatever mistakes were made, apologize sincerely, and then be completely transparent about what you are doing to fix the problem. Don’t defend, don’t argue, and especially don’t get arrogant.

Unfortunately, when there’s a lack of leadership, defensiveness, argumentativeness and arrogance often appear to fill the void. Former Board President Walter Tice got it exactly right at Monday evening’s Board meeting when he admonished the board for expecting the public to, again, vote on a budget in which the dollar amount of the single largest expense — teacher’s salaries — is a guess that can’t even be revealed to the voters.  Tice advised the board to get the contract settled before the budget vote so that the public could have confidence that the proposed budget accurately reflected the amount the District would need to meet its obligations — not too little, and certainly not too much. That being a concept the board and administration have had difficulty with in recent years, they should carefully consider the wisdom of Mr. Tice’s advice.

The good news is that leadership can be learned on the job. All that’s needed to get the contract negotiation ball rolling again, is for one or more Board members to accept the fact that it is the Board’s job to get it done and to stop making it personal. As things stand right now, the animosity directed by some board members towards the teachers’ union is palpable, and that’s not appropriate. This is not an ego battle. Board members must put aside their personal feelings and their preconceived notions of whatever it was they thought they could “accomplish” in the negotiations, and actually start to negotiate.  A leader would recognize that “winning” is no longer the most important point. (It actually never was.) Preserving the vision, the quality, and the harmony of the District is what’s important now. A leader would know this, and would do whatever is necessary to make his or her colleagues understand it as well. I know that leader exists on this board. I just hope that he or she is ready to start learning on the job.

Posted in Government, Schools, Taxes | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Shadow Goes Home

I usually use this space to write about issues facing our East End communities. But, every once in a while I digress from the serious side of life to honor one of those ephemeral moments that make living in Sag Hampton so rewarding. Today I joined about two hundred students, teachers, administrators and parents on Haven’s Beach as Shadow, a Gray Seal who was rescued in April and rehabilitated by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation was released into the wild.

First there was a moment of sweet anticipation, as a representative of the Foundation thanked the children of Sag Harbor Elementary for adopting Shadow, and making his return to the wild possible. Then, Shadow was carried in his transport cage from the foundation’s van down to a spot near the water’s edge. One of the students was called upon to help open the cage door. As the door began to open, Shadow first stuck his nose out and then cautiously emerged from his temporary shelter. Looking a bit confused, he headed for the water, then changed his mind and tried to reverse direction and return to the safety of his cage. Apparently prepared for this eventuality, volunteers from RFMRP (as the foundation is awkwardly known), used large plywood squares to block his way, gently encouraging the seal to move seaward again, which he quickly agreed to do. A few minutes later Shadow was in the water. After swimming a few quick circles in the immediate vicinity of the beach, with just one quick backward glance, he was gone.

I’m not sure if Shadow was entirely happy about this turn of events — after all, he will now have to catch his own meals, after being hand-fed for many months — but we humans at least could bask in the happy feeling of having participated in a small worthwhile act of kindness and community. For us, it really doesn’t get any better than this.

Enjoy the photos.

Carrying Shadow to the water's edge.

Carrying Shadow to the water's edge.

A student helps to open the cage door

A student helps to open the cage door

Shadow pokes his nose out.

Shadow pokes his nose out.

Taking a look around.

Taking a look around.

Heading for the sea.

Heading for the sea.

A bit reluctant, but almost there.

A bit reluctant, but almost there.

On his way.

On his way.

A quick look back, and then he's gone.

A quick look back, and then he's gone.

Posted in Local Events, Our Town, Schools | 1 Comment