Asking Questions, is it Helpful or Harmful to the Process of Government?

Is asking questions of our government and elected officials disruptive or damaging to the process?   I would emphatically say “NO”.   I believe strongly that our community will have a better outcome if our questions are received with humility, a desire to correct any problems and without defensiveness.

I was a senior programmer before deciding to stay home with my children.   My job consisted of writing code and leading projects.    A critical part of the code writing process is verifying that the code works as expected.   There is typically an entire team devoted to testing your code.   This team develops a test plan with the goal of making sure every inch of code is touched to ensure it meets specifications.    I enthusiastically welcomed this part of the process.  Of course, I won’t deny the sting when an oversight was found, but the relief that my code didn’t go live before I had a chance to fix it was worth it.   My number one goal wasn’t to protect my ego, it was to deliver functional code that was well written, efficient and easily modified when updates were needed.

In a similar way, to ensure we have the best outcome for our community, it is appropriate to ask questions of the data provided and conclusions drawn.   We must test the assumptions being made.   Labeling those in the community who ask questions as troublemakers and getting defensive is not productive and is not how government reaches the best outcome.

Below are a couple examples of questions that the community is asking:

1.  Transportation Plan Assumptions

An update to our City’s Transportation Plan is currently underway.   The community is questioning many of the assumptions that were fed into this plan and concerned the traffic model is grossly underestimating the traffic impact of future development.   Through community questions, several things came to light about the traffic model used to drive the Transportation Plan.

First, the model assumes only ONE “PM peak hour” vehicle trip per household.   When this came to light during a meeting sponsored by the Taylor’s Ridge HOA, there was an audible gasp.   Common sense tells you that our community generates many more trips per household.   While using this national “PM peak hour vehicle trips per hour” number is legally justifiable, it is a cause for concern.  Certainly using this national number does not reflect the reality of our community.

Duvall has a very high occupancy per household compared to the national average.   In addition, the new homes being built in Duvall are very large homes and many will likely be occupied by busy families.   Even if members of the household are not commuting during the peak hours, there are many trips during the PM peak hour such as shuttling children to and from activities, trips to the store, etc.   If we want to accurately predict the traffic impact of development, we need to use numbers that are applicable to our community.

Secondly, it was discovered that the traffic model was not using the full capacity of the annexation area being considered.   So, our City would be making decisions related to the North UGA annexation based on a traffic plan that is only using 138 homes when the actual capacity of this annexation area is documented to be 250+ homes.

You might ask, why does this matter?   Well, the Transportation Plan guides the traffic improvement projects for our city.   It also feeds into the Traffic Impact Fee calculation that funds these projects.   If this Plan does not accurately predict the traffic congestion caused by development, we will not properly plan for it, nor will we obtain the funding to pay for it.

I want to be clear that the City of Duvall has incredible employees.  In no way do these questions, or even finding areas of concern, reflect negatively on those hardworking, intelligent and highly capable employees.   This is part of the process of getting the best outcome for our residents and there is no need to point fingers.

2.  Assertion that Duvall’s growth Rate is only 1% and therefore Duvall is not growing too fast and residents should stop being concerned about growth.

A current councilmember has made a point at City Council meetings to ask City staff: “What is our current rate of growth”?   The answer comes back with some number that sounds low and this council member looks to the audience with satisfaction.   Odd, to say the least.   Just this week, the mayor handed out a spreadsheet with historical population estimates.   In addition, I have heard from community members who were given this “fact” when they asked questions about growth.   Once again, it appears the intention is to squelch any concerns our community has about future development by pointing at historical numbers.  I question the relevance of these numbers and the conclusions implied.

First of all, I have a degree in math and am keenly aware of how numbers can be manipulated to argue pretty much any side of a discussion.   Our community is too smart to be tricked by that kind of data manipulation.

The 1% growth rate that is being thrown around is based on estimates and only applies to the last 2 years. This temporary dip is due to the timing of projects and not a trend.   If you look at the past 16 years, Duvall grew at 3x that rate (3% annual rate), even during a period that included a recession and housing crash.   That is over 62% growth in 16 years.   That is actually A LOT!

The bottom line is our leadership is making decisions regarding the FUTURE growth of Duvall, and these PAST numbers are irrelevant.

Duvall has 700 homes in the pipeline which represents almost 30% imminent growth.   Check out the homes currently being built in the North Hill development behind Cedarcrest High School OR the Hower Hill development near Judd park OR the multiple housing projects near Cherry Valley Elementary.   Also keep an eye out for land clearing behind Safeway along Big Rock that will likely occur later this summer or fall.   These 700 homes are not hypothetical, but actual projects working through the development process in a HOT housing market.

Why is questioning the relevance of the 1% growth rate important?   When the City is making decisions about whether we should annex additional land for dense housing, it is critical to consider the 700 homes that we already have in the pipeline and not refer to a very temporary and irrelevant 1% growth rate.

Responsible growth is done at pace that our infrastructure can support and without losing our City’s character.   Let’s watch some of these 700 homes get built before we immediately pile more into the development pipeline.   We might find our community wants to tweak some of the design standards before we commit to more of the same.

Back to my analogy of the code writing process.    How great is it that our community is willing to step up and help “test” with fresh eyes and enthusiasm?   I am always encouraged when I see members of our community take time out of their busy lives to attend City Council or Planning Commission meetings, ask questions and give important feedback.

It is very convenient for our leadership to disregard community concerns by calling those asking the questions “trouble makers” or “deniers of fact”.   I believe the opposite and will welcome those questions and am confident it will result in a better outcome for our community.