Friday, May 23, 2014

Big Picture Environmentalists

What's a "progressive" in local politics anymore? I'm not sure which argument in the Johnson County primary is more insane: calling Janet Lyness a "conservative" or Janelle Rettig "anti-bike."

Increasingly, a small faction in local politics is defining "progressive" narrowly, in terms of single issues or even single votes. The coalition is loose and ever-shifting but there's a few key players at the core.

Their actual numbers are small. Their motivations vary: sincere impracticality, personal grudges over past legal woes or primary losses, rigid old-left ideology, desires for jobs or other personal benefits. They have more in common with the narrow mind of the fundamentalist than the open mind of a "progressive." Far too often they resort to below the belt personal attacks, against the candidates they hate AND their supporters.

Alone, they have the power to achieve nothing. They can only win in alliance with others: conservatives or libertarians, or liberals who are misled by the code words.

The narrow-focus "progressives" apply tests of absolute purity on their pet issues, to the point where it makes it hard for people who partially agree to work with them, and sometimes to the point where they damage their own candidates.

Sadly, some of them seem to have lost their way, lost touch with bigger picture values in their single-minded focus on narrow issues. More than one campaign has been deliberately scuttled by once prominent Democrats offering aid and comfort to Republicans, sometimes just out of sheer spite.

There's a few different single issues in this faction. We've seen this dynamic in the justice center votes and the current county attorney race, where the naysayers demand drug legalization by nullification rather than legislation, and are backing a grossly under-qualified candidate over a single issue.

But nowhere in our local politics is it more visible than in the decade-long fight over development in the Newport Road area.

To hear the neighbors and their handful of single issue urban allies talk, this is a pure and noble effort to "preserve farmland." The immediate neighbors rote repeat a few environmental buzzwords and shaky stats spoon-fed to them by some urban allies.

Eight years ago, when Larry Meyers knocked off Mike Lehman in the supervisor primary, this felt more like a big picture environmental fight. But as the years have passed, the surface, the real agenda has emerged.

If this was about "preserving farmland" they'd be fighting for the pancake plains south of town, towards Hills and Lone Tree, far better farm ground than the hilly and woody and chopped up Newport Road area. That's the overwhelming majority of the farm land, and that's what current plans protect.

The Newport neighbors always a have reason to build somewhere else: other residential zoned lots for which there's no demand, spots closer to town, ag land in other parts of the county... anywhere but here. Their oft-cited hundreds of unbuilt residential zoned lots includes places with one house on two or three lots where the owner simply wants a bigger lot. It includes people who won't sell at any price, at least in this generation. It includes non-buildable out lots and even septic fields.

No, this is about preserving farmland in this one neighborhood. They've found a little paradise that feels like it's in the middle of nowhere yet is minutes from mid-town, and they want to keep it for themselves.

At least for now. Till they change their minds. After everything else is built out, their land values will skyrocket, and then they can really cash in. (Look at the family names of the richest developers in the county. Almost all have one thing in common: an origin in family farms close to the city limits.)

That's how things have played out with the Dooley property, the current ground zero of this fight. The late Mike Dooley was one of the most adamant stop-growth people. Then he died, under sad circumstances, and for whatever reason his wife decided to liquidate the farm.

That's how land use used to work in this county, back in the 90s, back before the first comprehensive plan of 1998. The back 40 was the farmer's 401K, and you got to cash it in based on which supervisors you were friends with. I was taking minutes in those dark ages, and major zoning battles were a nearly monthly event, with development leapfrogging across the county.

Every so often, rural neighbors and urban land use activists raised enough fuss that the supervisors said no. On one occasion the county got sued: the developer met the guidelines but was told no on the grounds of "we don't like it." The county lost and the developer built about twice as many houses as he would have under the rejected plan.

Therefore, the comprehensive plan. You set rules, you follow them, the process is more fair. And the rules say the targeted area for development is the North Corridor, where the demand is high and the Corn Suitability Rating - that's zoning speak for prime farmland - is low. The rules also say development should be clustered, to consolidate services.

That's what Dooley's widow has pursued, under a "conservation subdivision" ordinance. She followed the rules as laid out. The process should be automatic. But it's political.

Could the land use plan use some tweaks? Sure, but you need a big-picture progressive Board majority to do that.  But in recent years, the Newport neighbors have been willing to support any candidate, no matter how brown, who would vote "right" on their narrow interest items.

The Dooley rezoning landed right during the March 2013 special supervisor election. Democrat Terry Dahms, in the middle of the campaign, had to deal with it as zoning commission chair, and also had to deal with disgruntled Democrats aligned with the narrow focus faction who were upset that their candidate hadn't been nominated. Republican John Etheredge, who campaigned on a "property rights" platform elsewhere, made a glaring and opportunistic exception when it came to Mrs. Dooley's rights.

Almost as soon as the Dooley zoning was approved on a 4-1 vote, with newly sworn-in Etheredge the no, the coalition vowed to "knock off" Janelle Rettig.

I've been clear from the beginning of this race, before the field was set, that Janelle had earned my first vote. Leader of the conservation bond in 2008? Service on state environmental boards? 30 years of public life with the environment as her biggest focus? Great credentials.

But to the small picture gang on Newport Road it doesn't matter. She voted "wrong" on ONE zoning.

The Rettig loathing has jumped the shark with R.E. Butler's editorial that called the godmother of the county trails system "an enemy of cyclists." Butler followed up this week with a message to members of Bicyclists of Iowa City that, along with some contemptible attacks on the Dooleys that I won't repeat, claims: 
Rettig and some of her colleagues want to claim all (sic) the farmland along Newport Road for housing development, similar to what has been done between Coralville and North Liberty... The urban sprawl into the Northeast Corridor would mean the loss of the pastoral nature of Newport Road and its loss as a prime bike route; Black Diamond and the Welsh Church Rd will follow without action by the citizenry. We urge you to vote for Carberry and against Rettig and Greenwood (sic). 

I guarantee no one is going to vote for "Greenwood," because there's no one by that name on the ballot. It's telling, though, that this group is sputtering with so much rage that they can't even slow down for a quick look at a sample ballot.

Or perhaps they think Lisa Green-Douglass is Voldemort: She Who Must Not Be Named. Green-Douglass has been a secondary target on some of the attacks, and supposedly "doesn't want to preserve farm land." Which is laughable as her land is directly in the path of North Liberty. To paraphrase Tina Fey paraphrasing Sarah Palin: I can see urban sprawl from my house.

It's not clear what the Newport gang will do with their second vote: skip it entirely, or waste it on Diane Dunlap, the Some Dude candidate in this race, who's parroted a couple of their lines but is clearly in over her head. But their priority is clear: punish Rettig for daring to defy them.

Is it fair to evaluate a candidate by the behavior of the supporters?  Some of Carberry's backers do him more harm than good. If anything, John Zimmerman's supporters have been even worse. One hijacked Janet Lyness' domain name and filled a site with scatological "humor."  When the same person pulled the same stunt in 2012 with an anti-Tom Slockett site, Travis Weipert rightly denounced it. But he still got blamed and still lost votes. Zimmerman? Not a peep of protest from him.

If the candidate accepts the support, repeats the mantra of the key code words, shares and retweets and says nothing when the supporters cross the line, they accept a share of the responsibility for the content.

How big a share? Does this make a vote for the candidate an endorsement of the supporters, the tactics, and the rhetoric? Is the most effective tool to denounce the tactics a vote for a different candidate? I don't want to vote against Mike Carberry. But I'd sure like to find a way to vote against some of his supporters.

This is a primary election. Democrats are choosing which two of the three serious candidates will be the best ticket for the party in the fall. If you buy into a primary process, you buy into the outcome. You don't look for a do-over in November. Carberry has at least talked the talk, pledging to support the primary winners at a March Democratic Party meeting, as did Rettig and Green-Douglass (and Lyness and Zimmerman). But some of Carberry's key supporters have a poor track record on backing the ticket in recent years.

As a former party chair, Mike Carberry knows that whichever two Democrats get through this race, they'll have to find a way to work together, as candidates and as supervisors. The real anti-environmentalist on the ballot is the Republican, Etheredge, who even voted against an Earth Day resolution because it dared to suggest that climate change is real.

I've known Mike Carberry a long time. He is a better person that the attacks his supporters are launching at Rettig. He's a strong enough candidate without those attacks. He's a big-picture enough environmentalist that he shouldn't need to depend on small picture messages from this small segment of his supporters. Sure, he can accept the votes. But it's time to reject the over the top rhetoric.

Unfortunately, the nature of this narrow-interest group is such that the likely outcome of this post will be to put me in their crosshairs. Which is fine. I've been there enough this election, and like "Greenwood", I'm not on the ballot. But that also means I'm irrelevant. Mike and Lisa and Janelle are relevant.

Mike Carberry needs to find a way in the primary's final days to distance himself from the personal and inaccurate attacks. That'll be challenging, as some of the harshest attackers are his biggest donors. He needs to prove that, should he prevail, he can move forward to the fall on a ticket with either Rettig or Green-Douglass. And he needs to show that he can get his supporters on board with either Lisa or Janelle, or both should he lose. Any of the three are far better big-picture environmentalists than Etheredge.

And environmentalism is much more than one vote.

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