Home Homepage Featured Ad hoc — or punting to go in hock?

Ad hoc — or punting to go in hock?

By David Rogers. July 9, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC – Anyone who studied government and its processes as a senior in high school, or perhaps even earlier in some school districts, knows the difference between a “standing” committee and an “ad hoc” committee. Standing committees address areas of long-term concern with an eye toward suggestions for relevant policy-making, while ad hoc committees are formed for a very specific purpose.

For example, the U.S. House of Representatives has a standing committee to look at Energy, generally, but that group could form an ad hoc (or what they call a “select”) committee to study issues related to offshore oil exploration on the outer continental shelf. Other standing committees include Agriculture, the Judiciary, Ways & Means, Transportation, Commerce and the like. Perhaps as a subset of those standing committees, a “select” committee might be formed: to study the condition of the nation’s Interstate highway bridges in Transportation or the alternative uses of corn and its by-products in Agriculture, as examples.

Trust the processes that have already been put in place.

Business organizations, even churches, often have standing committees and ad hoc committees, too. Rumple Memorial Presbyterian Church in Blowing Rock has standing committees for Finance, Stewardship, Mission, Properties, and Christian Education, among others. Recently, an ad hoc committee was formed to explore audio-visual alternatives in the sanctuary to help facilitate or enhance parts of the worship service. Most other churches have similar organizational structures.

Blowing Rock’s legislative body, the Town’s Board of Commissioners, does not have any standing committees of its own members, at least none that are readily identifiable in the Town Code. As a relatively small body in a small town, perhaps they aren’t needed.

The closest we come to standing committees are the Board-appointed advisory committees made up of community volunteers: the Planning Board, the ABC Board, the Board of Adjustments, the Tourism Development Authority (TDA), and the Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Commission (BRAAC). Each one has a specific area of concern, just like standing committees in the U.S. Congress, and their primary job is to make policy recommendations, where needed, to the larger legislative body.

We’ve been down this road before. We don’t need to waste even more taxpayer money on one commissioner’s folly.

While BRAAC might study how public art should be integrated into the Town’s visual landscape, the Planning Board evaluates proposed development projects in light of the adopted Land Use Code. As the Planning Board did last fall to evaluate the Land Use Code for contradictions and clarity, any of the advisory committees might also form an ad hoc committee for a specific purpose. Whether or not after the ad hoc committee completes its mission and any recommendations are advanced to and adopted by the Board of Commissioners…well, that is another matter entirely.

The point is, ad hoc committees serving legislative bodies are SUPPOSED to be formed with a very specific and clear purpose in mind.

Apparently, someone forgot to tell the supposed ad hoc committee approved by the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners earlier this year for “visioning” development along Valley Blvd. what their mission was or is, at least with any kind of specificity.  Perhaps that stems from it being an ill-conceived, poorly thought idea from the outset.

To begin with, it was unnecessary. But we’ll get back to that in a moment…

After approximately six hours in three meetings of trying to figure out what they are about and what they should do, the ad hoc “visioning” committee punted last week, and their consequent “recommendation” will come before the Town Council for action at Tuesday night’s meeting.

While ostensibly organized to consider the nature of commercial development along Valley Blvd., at times the ad hoc committee members contemplated whether they should expand their scope to include Main Street and the Central Business district. By at least one report, they even considered tackling a review of the Town’s 2014 Comprehensive Plan. And these sidetrips, even though the Board of Commissioners’ instructions upon approving the formation of the committee seemed to point solely at Valley Blvd.

Tester did not mince words in being critical of the ad hoc committee as a colossal waste of misplaced time and energy.

But they really didn’t come to the conclusion that the task was bigger than their capabilities until after one appointed member, Keith Tester, marched out in disgust during last week’s third confab — after correctly pointing out that the whole thing should have been organized under the auspices of the Planning Board and perhaps even as part of the Town’s periodic review of the Comprehensive Plan (which happens to be scheduled for this year). Very much to his credit, Tester did not mince words in being critical of the ad hoc committee as a colossal waste of misplaced time and energy.

So how will they punt? At Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting of Town Council, they will recommend that the Board of Commissioners approve the hiring of one or more professional (urban) planners to canvass members of the community about what they would like to see out on the Bypass and then evaluate the various development threats and opportunities along Valley Blvd. – at a cost of at least $20,000 and possibly $30,000 — or more — in professional fees.

Say what?

They are all good, well-intentioned people and their willingness to serve the community in any capacity is to be commended, but except for Tester’s candid outburst there was NOTHING that was said or done during last week’s third meeting of the ad hoc committee that could not or should not have been said or done under the auspices of the Planning Board, which just as easily could have reached a conclusion to spend a lot of taxpayer money on misplaced professional fees.

What, really, is hiring a professional planner going to accomplish, even if he or she produces the “visuals” that the ad hoc committee will suggest as a deliverable?

We’ve been down this road before. It was not that long ago that the Town of Blowing Rock’s Board of Commissioners — most of the still sitting members — hired professional consultants to canvass the community and develop streetscape ideas for Sunset Drive – at a cost of more than $60,000. That firm, Destinations by Design, did exactly what they were directed by the Board to do, receiving community input and developing a range of design and even signage alternatives, from pretty plain vanilla to fanciful — and they had some beautiful “visuals” to support their ideas.

After delaying the Sunset Dr. project for years, not months, to consider these and other alternatives, the Board dismissed the consulting firm’s recommendations as too expensive – especially given elements of public outcry against making Sunset Drive any kind of “gateway” to downtown Blowing Rock.

After throwing away that $60,000 because they didn’t adequately think through the mission and the steps that perhaps should have been taken before making that investment, this is the same Board of Commissioners that will be asked Tuesday night to hire yet another professional consultant to do something similar with Valley Blvd.

This is not rocket science.

Toward what purpose? Is the consultant going to simply advise the Board on streetscape improvements, which have pretty much already been integrated into the visual landscape with the Department of Transportation’s widening of the U.S. 321 Bypass (AKA Valley Blvd.)? Is a consultant going to tell every property owner along the route what they should or shouldn’t do in developing the property they own? Or is the consultant going to advise the Board that the Town should buy up every parcel along Valley Blvd. so that it CAN dictate the development? Does the Town have that kind of TAXPAYER money to spare?

This is not rocket science. From our conversations with a wide variety of community constituents, the consensus mission should be fairly straightforward: don’t allow Valley Blvd. to develop with a hodge-podge of neon and plastic like U.S. 321 going through Boone or Lenoir.

Most of what is already in place in Blowing Rock should take care of that, beginning with a Land Use Code that is fairly restrictive regarding building appearances and signage. There are instances all across America where even ubiquitous fast food restaurants blend in with the Town persona, given building material requirements, rooftop restrictions, landscaping and signage limitations. If there are deficiencies in Blowing Rock’s Land Use Code, do we really need an expensive urban planner to point those out?

After the Planning Board’s recent exhaustive work on cleaning up the Land Use Code was misrepresented by external groups, insulted, and summarily dismissed by the Board last February, its volunteer members may not be readily anxious to take on another project any time soon, but perhaps it can form an ad hoc committee of its own to evaluate Land Use Code restrictions, good and bad, that might impact Valley Blvd. development.

Apart from the Planning Board, or perhaps in conjunction with it, Blowing Rock is blessed to have a very capable Planning Department director and staff, as well as a highly competent Town Manager.  They could also make recommendations for preventing development of U.S. 321 Bypass similar to what evolved in Lenoir and Boone.

Simply put, we don’t need to spend another twenty or thirty thousand dollars – or more – if only we trust the processes and people that have already been put in place.

And that is how we see it.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Good article regarding consultants fees, David. If I could just vent a little to clear the air over town government activities via my ensuing comments, by stating that there are two points I’d like to make. No, make that three.

    We moved away from Blowing Rock recently, however, the activities of the town still intrigue. Having disclosed this, let’s imagine we could rewrite some rules, at least pose some advice.

    First would be that, speaking from experience and recently having been on the Planning Board for a few years, may I state that a finer group of ladies and gentlemen could seldom be found. The town is fortunate to have this bright group on board along with the town’s Planning and Zoning officers that work with and advise this group. Knowledgeable, with experience abounding in many areas the Planning Board was found to be of useful diverse backgrounds: legal, building and architecture, financial minds, business owners and the like. I felt like the neophyte and tried to learn as much as could be gleaned from my peers.

    So, based on the assumption that being a member of the Planning Board invokes a steep learning curve, before anyone ran for town council, they would be way, way ahead of that learning curve if they had first served time on such a board, to learn the ropes so to speak, as a window into how the Town works. Like having to know what codes are — and are not. Knowing the definition of minutiae and when it’s not required. Ascertainment of facts ahead of time so meetings don’t go on until the cows come home because they are asking for answers to common sense questions. When to be quiet and listen. Yes, it’s hard for some to do, but it’s feasible.

    Simply put, being on town council with no prior experience of board work indicates an individual who is destined to learn the proverbial ropes by ‘on the job training’ — and often at taxpayers’ expense. The extended time of some recent meetings that should have taken a fifth of the time indicates this. Talking of seeing the cows come home once again down Main street is even an apparent goal of some with a myopic wish to return to those good ‘ole days …

    But I digress…

    Secondly, the thought of spending $30-40,000.00 on a ‘study’ to reinforce one’s own rigid viewpoints in an imagined “official” way, in my opinion, is again myopic and wasteful.

    Let’s imagine that Blowing Rock has built the Blowing Rock Mint. In this building, money is printed and each single note is worth $3,000.00. This is to be known as the BR Tax currency. Why $3,000.00? Because, as close as my calculations allow that is what the average homeowner has to pay Blowing Rock each year in property taxes for their houses. So, if a consultant (usually defined as someone from out of town carrying a smirk, a briefcase, and a computer..) is paid $30,000.00 to do a study on Valley Boulevard, or what color to paint the Green Hill water tower, (take your pick), at currency value ($3,000 per taxpayer) it’s as if ten homeowners’ taxes went straight down the drain. With the $60k spent on the DOA (dead on arrival) Sunset Drive consulting project, that was 20 homeowners footing the bill and more money down the drain. No doubt, these are monies the homeowners — who are not all wealthy, by the way — could have used for something far more intelligently planned, productive, and useful.

    Being a town’s representative is not easy. We all appreciate the time they all give and the heat they receive. However, the lives and finances of the tax-paying homeowners in Blowing Rock would be made a great deal easier if the money spent by some town officials was treated as if it was their own — and not printed up as needed at the Blowing Rock Mint. I’m quite fond of all the town council members as individuals. I’m just not always fond of the fiscal actions taken — the apparent lack of forethought becoming an all too frequent phenomenon.

    • Very thoughtful, thought-provoking and well articulate observations, George. Thanks for your contributions — and for your service on the Planning Board. Too bad you and your wife moved away…you would make for a much better prepared Commissioner.

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