Probably my most commonly expressed refrain throughout what we now refer to as the Big Box War is that we shouldn’t have to be working this hard to stop something that is so clearly wrong and wrong in so many ways. Having now reviewed the results of a public survey concerning the Gateway District commissioned in 2000 by Supervisor Kennison in the early years of his first term, something I had not seen until this week, it turns out this whole debacle is wrong in even more ways than I imagined.
The principle wrong, the original sin, if you will, is that the Town enacted newer and weaker zoning – the Planned Development District (PDD) law – at the behest of and for the purpose of allowing Newman Development Group’s Gateway Town Center proposal to be reviewed. What the Gateway survey makes clear is that the Town knew just how deeply concerned the people of Geneseo were about traffic, sprawl, and overdevelopment years before they passed the PDD or any of us had heard of Newman.
It went like this: in late 2004, Newman came to Town anxious to capitalize on the traffic and sprawl created by the new Super Wal-Mart then under construction. Finding that existing Town zoning prohibited retail buildings larger than 35,000 square feet, that developer encouraged the Town to enact new zoning to allow its 170,000 square foot big box.
Ignoring the underlying zoning and the years of planning that preceded that zoning, as well as significant public opposition that arose at the prospect of more big boxes and sprawl, the Town agreed.
It was only at this point that a second public survey commissioned as part of the master planning process, conducted years after the one mentioned above, entered the picture. Indeed, at the same meeting at which the Town enacted the PDD law, it heard a presentation about the new master plan survey, and the public concerns about traffic and overdevelopment it revealed.
If one were inclined to be generous (and I’m not any longer), one might give the Town the benefit of the doubt and say that the master plan survey evidence arrived too late to stop the Town from rolling out the red carpet for Newman. However, the results of the 2000 Gateway survey, which have somehow not been part of the discussion of Newman’s proposal, remove any doubt about the strength of public opposition to sprawl.
In response to the survey, designed to solicit public opinion about the construction of Volunteer Drive and Morganview Road and the commercial development their construction would facilitate, the public spoke with a strong and united voice about traffic, sprawl, and overdevelopment, and all they do to erode Geneseo’s small town quality of life (Download the 38 page survey with comments as a pdf file here).
The first open-ended question asked: “What is your main concern with economic development in the Geneseo area?” In 235 different answers, one clear message was sent: the people of Geneseo oppose retail sprawl and the traffic and loss of small town character that accompany it. Over and over again, people make reference to “congestion,” “far too much development,” “traffic on 20A,” “sprawl,” our diminishing “small town flavor,” “rampant overdevelopment,” and the ills of Henrietta.
The same answers resulted when people were asked to complete this sentence: “If I could change anything about Geneseo it would be.” Likewise when people were asked to identify something they hoped will never change about Geneseo. Over and over again, people express deep longing for a quaint, safe small town and deep concern that it is being lost to – did I mention this yet? – traffic, sprawl, and overdevelopment.
Even when given the opportunity to identify the benefits of the Gateway project, people expressed real doubts about the prospects for more jobs and fewer taxes and weighed them against the traffic and sprawl they knew would result.
Yet here we are, seven years later, confronted again with what we have said over and over again we do not want. The Gateway Town Center proposal is wrong. The PDD law that allowed it to be proposed is wrong. Town leaders are wrong for putting us in this position and putting the interests of private developers ahead of clearly and strongly expressed public opinions.
A final point: these results were apparently not what was expected; the cover letter that accompanied the survey betrays a bias in favor of the projects about which it is asking, stating “the new roads will not only create an easier transportation route, but at the same time will increase economic development in Livingston County.”
By not sharing the Town’s enthusiasm for these projects, the public apparently forfeited what it was promised in the final sentence of the letter, which reads “By filling out the enclosed survey, you will help further our research and make your voice heard on current and future development issues.” If only….