In today's environment of misinformation (not just in Franklin, but everywhere), so much time seems to be wasted skirting actual issues. The Thursday night Plan Commission meeting was a great example of this. It is unclear as to why it seems no one explained to the members of the Plan Commission, why it was necessary to hold the Strauss special use permit meeting again, what the Judge, in her own words required, and how this meeting would need to be conducted in order to be considered valid, unlike the initial attempt. This is not a matter of differing opinions or interpretations, one simply needs to read the Judge's Order, in her own words. In no way is it unclear, regarding what she is requiring.
The Judge ordered a de novo hearing. In fact, she referenced this 3 times in just the latest meeting on Tuesday with legal counsel, prior to the Thursday Plan Commission remand hearing. Although this is a term few are familiar with, it has a simple meaning. From a legal standpoint, it states you are starting from the beginning. The Judge has been adamant about this point, even correcting the City's trial attorney on his wording around this topic previously.
If the meeting started from scratch, as required, Strauss would make their proposal, and in a new change, to ensure a fair, balanced, and unbiased hearing, the litigants in this process would be able to present and discuss facts and information they had gathered on this topic. Unfortunately, the very first requirement of this meeting could not be met. Strauss was not there to present any information, and instead, had a statement read that they would not build a new slaughterhouse in Franklin, but instead asked for time to sell their 30 acre parcel of land. At that point, as this was a "de novo hearing," -there was zero information provided from Strauss, there was no ask or request with regards to any type of permit for their land to consider, and there was, in fact, no longer even an applicant. To move forward with anything beyond this point, would fail to meet the first stipulation of the Judge's order, and be a complete waste of time, with regard to settling our current lawsuit.
The Mayor appeared to believe that just continuing to go through the motions was somehow what the Court was looking for. It is unclear as to why legal council did not step in and clarify the confusing situation. Nonetheless, the City went forward. After a lengthy comment period from citizens, members of the Plan Commission spoke. Not one attempted to address the issue at hand. Without an applicant, how could there possibly be a vote on a SUP that was being put forward by no one? Eventually the City Attorney did weigh in, to clarify that something like this was not allowed under current Franklin law. Therefore the Commission would have to create an amendment to the existing law, in order to make our "ghost" SUP (no applicant or sponsor) a viable entity to move forward.
Again, setting aside the question of why any public body would create such a bizarre amendment, we should still look at what the role of a member of the Plan Commission is. Although an unpaid, volunteer position, there are still legal requirements of the job, as well as a fiduciary responsibility to the residents of Franklin. Our attorney, only given 3 minutes with which to speak, adequately covered the issue. By law the following is required in order to pass a SUP:
Pursuant to the UDO, before the Plan Commission or the City Council may grant any SUP, they must engage in the following considerations:
Considerations. In determining whether the applicant's evidence establishes that the foregoing standards have been met, the Plan Commission and the Common Council shall consider the following:
1. Public Benefit. Whether and to what extent the proposed use and development at the particular location requested is necessary or desirable to provide a service or a facility that is in the interest of the public convenience or that will contribute to the general welfare of the neighborhood or community.
2. Alternative Locations. Whether and to what extent such public goals can be met by the location of the proposed use and development at some other site or in some other area that may be more appropriate than the proposed site.
3. Mitigation of Adverse Impacts. Whether and to what extent all steps possible have been taken to minimize any adverse effects of the proposed use and development on the immediate vicinity through building design, site design, landscaping, and screening.
4. Establishment of Precedent of Incompatible Uses in the Surrounding Area. Whether the use will establish a precedent of, or encourage, more intensive or incompatible uses in the surrounding area.
Attorney Cincotta and FCA presented a large amount of both factual and relevant material in the meeting packet pointing out that not one of these requirements was adequately addressed. If everyone on the Plan Commission made a good faith effort to read the information provided (I'm aware that one actually did), all discussion and debate should have been around how our new headless horseman (a permit with no applicant), had satisfied these legal requirements under Franklin law.
I cannot remember the exact order of the speakers, but I do remember how far off base, the commentary was. Patrick Leon made a vague comment about emails and believing people, but then summed things up by suggesting that people get more involved and volunteer for various commissions, boards and committees. While FCA could not agree more about volunteering and getting involved, that statement does nothing to address the SUP approval with regards to meeting the 4 legal requirements listed above. It also seems somewhat tone deaf to the commentary made earlier from the public, that the Mayor controls, via appointment, roughly 87% of all positions. The point being, it would seem unlikely anyone in the room would be appointed to a position they volunteered for with our current government.
I'd like to go slightly off topic, to discuss a related issue around how we treat each other, and how it adds to our city government's dysfunction. I do not know, and in fact, have never met Patrick Leon. I did however get the impression from Thursday evening that he was being genuine and sincere. There has been much discussion, of all things, regarding Patrick's finger placement. From my perspective, I see this as yet another shiny object, distracting citizens from real discussion. For my part, I have absolutely no concern with, or stake in, whatever Mr. Leon chooses to do with his finger. (Sorry, I did not intend for that to sound as silly and obnoxious as it does.) During the age of COVID - this seems to be the level of crazy we've all been reduced to.
The issue this brings up, has nothing to do with any one individual. It has to do with whether volunteers are ever given any education, from a legal standpoint, as to the minimum requirement of their job. If someone is unable to read the pertinent information required to make a fact based, informed vote (regardless whether they vote yes or no), they need to recuse themselves from voting. As everyone is insanely busy these days, there is no shame in admitting as much. However, the legal requirements are very clear. You cannot cast an arbitrary vote, because your neighbor liked it, you had a good feeling about it, etc. Although I am very much on one specific side of this current case, I'm actually not advocating for a yes or no vote here, as much as stating, there were far too many, significant gaps in the information provided to make any truly viable vote possible.
Again, it is unclear to me whether the Plan Commission feels empowered to require additional input or not. If they do, the burning question I had Thursday night, was never answered. Regardless of how you view Ald. Hanneman's paper, she never intended (I'm positive she would agree) to address the possible direct effect a development may have on specific home values. She was focused on additional funds potentially being brought into the area, based on wage growth and additional development. So to be factually clear (not an opinion), there was never any study provided that even attempted to look at how such a controversial development might affect homeowner values. Obviously there are 3rd party, national firms which can do this sort of thing (FCA has been forced to hire one). If in fact any of the pro slaughterhouse contingent were sincere, why would not a single one call for this type of study, as they must feel it would no doubt bear out what they fervently believe?
This takes me to the question of what is a viable study? There seems to be great confusion in our society, as to what a 3rd party study is. The concept is that a 3rd party is impartial or neutral. Therefore, asking the direct entity applying for something (1st party) to provide a study which they conduct themselves, is not done, for the simple reason it will be assumed the study is biased (whether true or not.) This is also true for a 2nd party study. If you're the direct entity wanting to see something occur, you do not hire a firm you've worked with for a decade, and paid substantial funds to over the years. The term often used in business is that this entity is "conflicted out."
A true third party study is one like FCA has contracted for. Prior to this engagement, FCA has had no dealing whatsoever with the company conducting it. Furthermore, after signing the contractual engagement, FCA has had only one additional interaction with the company, to provide unadulterated, factual documents (like the actual SUP) that were requested. To be clear, FCA does not know the final outcome. We do however feel it likely will support our case, as the 31 studies we previously examined from around the country, all showed varying decreases in property values based on distance from a slaughterhouse.
This leads me to one final concern. It regards the very lengthy commentary made by City Engineer Glen Morrow at the Thursday meeting. He started off by stating he had read the material provided by the plaintiffs, but then failed to address a single concern, question, or request for missing information that was brought up. Instead he focused on one article (of thirty-one which could have been provided, but also would not have been read.) This article was included to indicate why a study on local property values should be required, as our situation is unique, but virtually every study to date, shows a decline in property values.
This particular study, by a California PhD, showed the most precipitous drop in property value, where properties located next to a slaughterhouse lost up to 88% of their worth. This single article was not intended to be an exact fit to Franklin's situation, but was only included to demonstrate, as one example of dozens, why FCA feels a specific 3rd party study for Franklin should have always been a minimum requirement for a SUP approval. Again, keep in mind, we're talking about a completely counter-intuitive development, next to a brand new subdivision, in an area of town that doesn't even have much commercial development, let alone heavy industrial.
Again, there seems to be a complete lack of understanding as to why there is a Planning Commission, and how they are meant to operate. Each member represents the citizens of Franklin. They do not represent companies, they do not represent the Mayor's ideas or opinions, they are not a rubber stamp. At a traditional planning commission, the meeting would start with a presentation from the applicant, and the commissioners would then thoroughly put the applicant through their paces to make sure the proposed development meets requirements and addresses the concerns of the majority of citizens. There would be an obvious back and forth with questions and clarifications. There would be significant effort from all parties to make a fact based, thoughtful decision.
Now, let's look at what happened last Thursday night (and is starting to become our new norm.) The applicant was not even at the meeting (in this case actually having decided to pull out entirely.) There was no information provided on their behalf. After hearing hours of venting from citizens, only allowed to speak for 3 minutes each, the commissioners then decided to debate a SUP request, which by this point had no applicant. As there was no information introduced (remember this was a court ordered de novo hearing - start over from scratch), the commissioners chose to address either unrelated issues, or attack the only information they were provided, that from their own citizens. Citizens were never allowed to speak again, after the initial 3 minute commentary period, not even to ask clarifying questions, or point out blatant misinterpretations by the commissioners. The commissioners were allowed to speak for an unlimited amount of time, on virtually any topic they chose, whether actually related to the matter at hand or not.
The Plan Commission and Common Council meetings now appear to look like exactly what they've become, an all out battle between the citizens and the people either voted or appointed to represent them. By law, there cannot be a predetermined decision or outcome. With no applicant, no information, a clearly concerned population against it, your commissioners voted through a special use permit. To carry this off, a new last minute amendment (most likely not legal) had to be added to Franklin's laws to make this latest approval even a potential. Franklin, is this what you've hoped for, from your local government?
Let me at least end on a humorous note, as we've been discussing some very stressful issues. To be clear, Glen Morrow and I do not know each other, but I intend the following as good-natured ribbing. I'm guessing he unintentionally strayed far afield from his topic, when he began discussing the level of pungent odors from various animal groups. He eventually landed on the "sweet" smell of cow manure, you can experience while walking down the isle of a garden center. By the time Glen had strayed far down manure alley, Mayor Olson stepped in to say, "wrap it up!" And although Mayor Olson and I have been diametrically opposed for months now on this slaughterhouse issue, I can honestly say, at that moment, I wanted to jump up and shout, "Bless You Mayor Olson!"
Obviously there is some level of common ground for everyone. As we all need to live here together, FCA truly hopes we all can engage in healthy debates with each other, inform our opinions with facts (recognizing there is no such thing as "alternative facts"- that is an absolute oxymoron), and treat each other with at least a modicum of respect, even when passions flare. If we can bring our local government back in alignment with our actual democracy, I truly believe all residents and businesses will be better off.