The use of citizen-based referendums as a tool to direct government policies is becoming more common at the state and local levels. Democracy is evolving, and that's a good thing.
Tax caps laws are a direct result of a citizen-based referendum. Taxpayers, fed up with rising property taxes, placed limits on how much governmental units could increase their tax rate. Many public officials bemoan these restrictions and it can be argued that taxes, through morphing and disguising as "additional revenue streams" have increased at a rate higher than if the tax caps were not in place.
A Sycamore-based citizens group, CARE (Citizens Against Rapid Expansion), successfully passed a referendum in the March 2004 elections. The following referendum was "non-binding:"
CITY OF SYCAMORE PROPOSITION FROM FURTHER APPROVING A RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT
Shall the Sycamore City Council be directed from further approving a residential development (or developments) for a period of seven (7) years, with the exception of housing for the elderly, homeless and handicapped?
This referendum passed by a 71-29 percent vote. The organizers of this citizen-based initiative were ecstatic with the results. Their referendum passed by a landslide, and, they knew in fact they had a mandate that was binding to any local politician who could be made unsure of his/her re-election.
In effect, the CARE group, has put an end to any further approving of land annexations or residential developments for seven years unless or until the Sycamore City Council members and Mayor have the fortitude to go against the perception that a majority of voters will not be pleased.
An 80-acre in-fill parcel recently was rejected by the city council after it was unanimously approved by the planning commission. A 5-3 majority of the council members voted to approve the project, but in the case of land annexations, a super majority is needed and the vote was one council member short.
The developer had agreed to pay full impact fees without credits for school and park land donations he was providing. The school district, park district and planning commission all approved the project. The city council instead voted in favor of the non-binding referendum.
This left the Sycamore Planning Commission at a loss for a sense of direction. Why should they meet and go over development project plans if the city council was going to arbitrarily reject such proposals -- even when they fit the City's comprehensive plan?
A special meeting between the planning commission and city council members was held to determine what direction the city should take. Sycamore Mayor, John Swedberg, who is facing a challenge from current City Treasurer, Ken Mundy, in the Spring '05 elections, announced a proposal that would, in effect, halt future residential developments until 2014.
Swedberg is hesitant to call his proposal a moratorium because that may not be politically correct but if the city council approves his plan the comprehensive plan will become an artifact.
Sycamore's current residential growth management policies in that comprehensive plan are already among the most restrictive in Illinois. If a 500-home subdivision were to be approved today the developer would have to wait six years, until 2011, before any building permits could be issued. The number of permits issued after that date would be limited to 50 homes each year.
City Manager, Bill Nicklas, points out that only 23% of Sycamore's registered voters voted in favor of the CARE referendum. It appears he is trying to get council members, and the mayor, to stick with the comprehensive plan that was just completed. If so, his motivation is good but his strategy is flawed. The fact is, of those who did vote, an overwhelming majority voted for the referendum.
Mayor Swedberg appears uncertain of his chances for re-election and his proposed moratorium is an effort to appease the CARE group. If so, he is playing politics with the city's future.
What the city should consider is to put the following referendum question to the voters in the soonest possible election: Should the City of Sycamore follow its comprehensive plan?
That would bring open, public debate about the comprehensive plan, the issues of growth and the future of Sycamore to the table. And it would bring more of that 77% that didn't vote to the polls.
The CARE group was successful in getting their referendum passed. Even if they promoted misinformation, and they did, they are now armed with the fact that 71% of those who voted supported their views. The misinformation given was often borrowed from point-the-finger-at growth government sources who were also justifying their increases in taxes and fees.
The anti-growth sentiment has been fed by the local governmental units. Now their hands are tied.
Citizen-based referendums are a good thing. The tax cap laws and the Sycamore growth moratorium are in protest of high taxes. They are expressions of "just say no." But just saying no is not enough if the desired end result is lower taxes. A growth moratorium could have the opposite of its intended effect. Be CAREful what you ask for. You just might get it.
Report on Sycamore City Council Meeting
I believe you will find this report more informative than today's Daily Chronicle's coverage of last night's city council meeting in Sycamore.
This report is specific to:
Agenda Item 13.
A. Consideration of an Administration Request for Clarification Regarding the Council's Position on Residential Growth Management.
As expected the Sycamore CARE organization attended the meeting in numbers. Several of their members spoke to remind council members of their successful nonbinding referendum while singling out and warning certain council members not to vote for any measure that violated the spirit and intent of their initiative.
There were several speakers, more than that of the CARE group, who spoke in favor of the City following its Comprehensive Plan along with its ordinance that delays the issuing of permits and restricts the number of permits issued each year. As Ken Andersen pointed out, Sycamore's current but untried growth management policies are among the most restrictive in Illinois.
Responsible growth advocates pointed out several times that following any of the other options published in the agenda and back up material would likely create a perception that Sycamore was declaring a moratorium on residential development. Such a perception would hinder the city's efforts to attract commercial and industrial development.
Steve Milner told the council about his efforts, and successes, in attracting non-residential development. He expressed his concerns regarding any perception of a moratorium.
Dr. Steve Glasgow spoke to the council about his challenges in recuiting medical professionals and professional services providers. He talked about how Sycamore was on the verge of having the population base necessary for successful recruitment of these valuable assets and how the community-at-large would benefit from increased health care services. His statements followed those of an unidentified Sycamore resident and business owner who told the council that he was advised that should he suffer a heart attack he would have to be sent elsewhere, probably via helicopter, because the community's population base was not sufficient to support acute heart care providers.
Rick Turner expressed the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce's concerns with moratorium perceptions. Dan Paulsen asked the council to stay the course of responsible growth. Gregory Taylor, resident, reminded council that the CARE group did not represent all Sycamore residents. Another non-identified lady told the council that the comprehensive plan is designed for the greater good of the entire community of Sycamore, inclusive of all residents and businesses, not for any special interest group, including CARE.
It was pointed out to the council that interfering with supply and demand would likely lead to higher property taxes instead of lowering them.
After public discussion on the three options for growth management offered by City Staff, Mayor John Swedberg, gave council members a new proposal that in fact places a moratorium on new annexations. The mayor had earlier declined Sal Bonanno's request for public discussion of this proposal. Four of the council members had never seen the mayor's proposal before.
Alderwoman Cheryl Maness made a motion to adopt the following growth management policy:
Option #1: Stay the Course:
- Retain the Comp Plan's Land Use Map of 2003.
- Consider new annexation requests on their merits, and negotiate annexation agreements that establish a break-even point for school and city services in terms of voluntary contributions and impact fees. This could involve significantly higher contributions.
- Continue to use Ordinance 2003.65 and the "Timeline" of projected annual permits to weigh the fiscal impact of new residential development.
With the following addendum:
Investigate the feasibility and wisdom of real estate transfer fees.
Mayor Swedberg immediately asked Maness to rescind her motion on the basis that he already had four votes from council members to adopt his proposal. This statement was in effect an admission by the Mayor that he had excluded certain council members and had polled other council members until he had four votes for his proposal. This action is likely in violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act. It is also disrepectful of the council members who were excluded.
The Maness motion was seconded by Alderwoman Terry Kessler. Alderman Alan Bauer then motioned (seconded by Barbara Leach) to postpone taking action on the issue until the next city council meeting. His motion received five of the eight votes, with Alderwomen Maness, Terry Kessler, 4th Ward, and Janice Tripp, 4th Ward, dissenting.
OBSERVATIONS: It is interesting to note that several council and staff members believe that "perception is reality" in relation to the Sycamore CARE group. "Don't bother them with facts, because their minds are made up." At the same time there are some who believe that decision-makers of commercial/industrial site locations must not adhere to perception is reality mentality. The perception of a moratorium may not be the desired effect of the city council/leaders but they are rolling the dice.
MAYOR SWEDBERG'S PROPOSAL
- Retain the Comp Plan’s Land Use Map of 2003.
Consider new annexation requests on their merits, while keeping Ordinance 2003.65 intact, negotiate annexation agreements that delay the first permit of any development approved in 2004 until 2012. Take the same approach with annexation proposals submitted in 2005 by negotiating a deferral of new permits until 2013. Thereafter, as we review the pace of permitting and on our “Timeline,” we may feel “caught up” or we may find that economic forces beyond our control have altered the projected pace of permitting. This approach allows willing seller to plan for their estates, and may invite some interested developers to invest in Sycamore’s future. It may also avoid the negative impact of a moratorium policy on commercial interests, while purposefully deferring the onset of new streams of permits to a later point in time.
- Raise our expectations for voluntary contributions that can be used for operating purposes by the School District or the City. A $3,000 per unit threshold for school contributions should overcome the net operating expense and produce a modest surplus in light of present trends in housing prices.
- Aim for an annual population increase between 3% and 4% per year once the impending wave of new population growth associated with the unregulated inventory of platted lots passes.
- Request a “fiscal impact of development” study over a projected 20 year period. To include a detailed analysis of fiscal impact of the current approved annexations, service level assumptions and the detailed costs and revenues for all city departments, school, park and library facilities, with the objective of growth to pay for itself.
Item 1 of this proposal places a blanket moratorium on new building permits. Ordinance 2003.65 already places limitations on building permits that delays issuance of building permits up to 6 years and restricts the annual number of permits allowed for each subdivision. Restricting the inventory (supply) of a product in high demand results in rising prices. If land value is increased then housing prices increase. While increased property valuations allow homeowners to increase their ability for borrowing as well as their equity for investment portfolio, rising property values also increases real estate taxes. A blanket moratorium will inflate housing costs that will be of benefit to developers who already have projects approved and for people who sell their homes for profit or those who purchase real estate as an investment. However, it will be detrimental, in terms of higher taxes, for those residents who view their house simply as their home, especially those who live on fixed income.
Item 4: As was adroitly pointed out at the council meeting by a resident, the Comprehensive Plan should act as a guide for the future of Sycamore for the betterment of all residents and businesses -- not for any special interest group. Slow-or-no-growth advocates commonly use the "Fiscal Impact Study" as a tool to delay growth. The fiscal impact study described above is modeled after that tool. Note how the description is inclusive of detailed costs and revenues for all city departments, school, park and library facilities (governmental units who have special interests). It does not call for research on the costs and revenues for private citizens and businesses of Sycamore in relation to new construction. It also completely ignores the social costs that the growing burden of housing costs has on the median-to-low income residents.
July 21, 2004
I was at this meeting that you describe. Often I read newspaper renditions of meetings and I wonder if I was at the same meeting.