Does the above question seem strange? Afterall, Milton is mostly a residential community, with some retail businesses and office parks primarily arrayed along the southern edges of the city. Milton doesn’t really have industries, does it? In fact, Milton does have an industry that dominates Milton’s economy, employing many hundreds of workers and dwarfing all other commercial/industrial sectors. And you see evidence of this industry every day on Milton’s (crumbling) roads . . . the ready-mix trucks, the dirt-moving equipment, the tractor-trailers carrying building materials, etc. Yes, Milton’s biggest industry is Development. And Development is an industry that not only dominates our city’s landscape, it infiltrates every aspect of Milton’s community, including our government and politics. In fact, you cannot truly understand Milton government or politics unless you understand development. Why? Because development is where the money is. And there is a lot of money because there is still a lot of undeveloped land. Milton’s remaining development potential ranges from $1B to $2B. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that Development dominates Milton’s government and politics. And unfortunately, Development often also distorts Milton’s governance and politics . . . as money so often does, whether in DC or in the City of Milton. City Council spends well over 50% of its time on land use issues. And Development, with its many associated problems, dominates political debate in Milton.
Of course, developers are naturally keen to maximize their profits. And this often means developers lobby the government for special favors—e.g., rezonings, use permits, zoning modifications, and variances . . . a veritable cornucopia of variances. (Variances are the granting of exceptions to Milton’s zoning laws and, in accordance with long-established zoning practice and Milton law, are supposed to be granted only for minor discrepancies that involve proven hardship.) Through campaign contributions and business/personal relationships, developers grease the gears of our city government to their benefit. And some developers have even recruited and successfully fielded candidates. Many of Milton’s founders were employed in the development industry (and this is reflected in our land use laws. More about this in another post.) And quite a few players in Milton’s development/construction industry have been elected to council. In fact, Milton’s original council included three council members with deep business interests in the development industry. I often refer to Milton’s election of these council members as Milton’s Original Sin. And to be blunt, citizens are just plain naïve if they believe that all of this money sloshing around and the presence on Council of development industry business-people (who build in Milton and invest in property in Milton) does not translate to favors for developers and degradation of our community. (In subsequent blog posts, I will document many examples of these favors to developers and other Special Interests.)
The goal of Milton’s big developers is usually higher density, which translates to higher profits. Unfortunately, Milton’s citizens pay the cost of this higher density in the form of traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, and lower home values.
Often, the community has fought back against developers and sometimes won. (I am proud to have provided leadership in some of these battles.) However, the playing field is decidedly not level. Developers have huge advantages: money, expertise, and attorneys. Council should act as a counterweight to the heavy interests of developers, but often the opposite is true, with Council often siding with developers against citizens. You need only watch a City Council meeting to understand the sympathetic treatment afforded developers at City Hall. Developers (and their lawyers) are allowed to speak freely at Council and interject at will. The same behavior from a citizen results first in a warning from the Milton police followed by expulsion if the warning is not heeded. On the other hand, developers and their attorneys are afforded wide latitude by the City, especially at Council. In the Matilda’s hearing, the developer-applicant was even allowed to object to a motion after the motion had been made, whereupon the motion was withdrawn, amended, and passed to the satisfaction of the developer, without a peep of dissent from a single Council member. Citizens have also witnessed City Community Development staff unabashedly rejoicing with developers that prevailed before Council . . . only in Milton. And not only do developers get a sympathetic ear from staff and from Council, the zoning process itself is also heavily biased in favor of developers . . . bias so obvious to citizens that 1900+ Miltonites signed a petition demanding reform of the zoning process. These same citizens voted in 2017 for candidates that promised zoning reform . . . it was promised that power would be shifted back to citizens. However, nothing has been done and the zoning process is virtually unchanged since I got involved in government in 2015. Obvious reforms, such as giving citizens same opportunity to speak as developers, have not been effected. In fact, things have gotten worse since the 2017 elections. In just the past four years, in four separate hearings before City Council, 28 variances/zoning modifications were granted at Birmingham Crossroads alone. That’s right . . . 28 variances . . . plus permission to operate a concert venue . . . a use not included on Milton’s long list of permitted uses in our zoning code.
In closing, let me be clear that I do not oppose developers or development in Milton. I have several friends who are developers; they are good, honest, and hard-working professionals. I fully support by-right development and even the granting of variances for minor discrepancies where hardship can be clearly proven. However, what I do oppose is our city government egregiously bending and breaking our zoning laws for Special Interests. I do oppose the profuse granting of variances that violate our variance ordinances and long-established variance practices. I do oppose use permits being bastardized with copious variances to “permit” uses that are not enumerated on Milton’s long list of permitted uses. I do oppose the corrosive and corruptive effects of developer money on good governance in Milton.
I am not advocating radical policies, but rather I am merely advocating that Milton uphold the rule of law . . . this is a matter about which we should all agree. It is pretty simple really: Citizens have an indisputable and basic (and legal) right to reasonable certainty about appropriate uses (as codified in law) of nearby properties that might affect citizens’ enjoyment/use of their property.
Advocating for Citizens’ Property Rights and Against Favors for Special Interests,
Today’s blog post is meant to provide an introduction to development in Milton and its importance in Milton’s government and politics. The next blog post will discuss variances, quoting directly from the American Public Planning Association, the trade organization for zoning professionals in the US.