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A Community Confused: A Microcosmic View of How We Got Trump

We had a most interesting town-hall meeting last night here in our lovely outpost of Point Roberts. I’ve written here several times about this oddity of a town where we live. There’s an intoduction to our “exclave” here. The meeting was called for a very specific purpose, to get input from the residents about how to finalize the revision of our community’s Character Plan (CP).

It degenerated into a semi-civilized brawl — sans any actual fisticuffs. But it did something more important — it let me understand with greater clarity how Trump got elected. It was a display of insane, unthinking, angry voices lashing out at illusory demons and searching to find a way to bring down the edifice — without having a clue what they were doing. This is a long post but it is illustrative.

First, some background: Back in 1992 a group of business owners and concerned residents here in Point Roberts met to discuss how to improve economic conditions, how to bring in jobs, encourage the establishment of new businesses and, importantly, find ways to keep young adults from having to move away to find well-paying work.

They looked at other more-or-less isolated communities like those on the San Juan Islands and other small towns along the Washington and Oregon coasts and determined that one potentially positive move would be to establish a kind of “image” for Point Roberts, something that reflected our history as a fishing outpost with its marine themes and promoted the period lighting, carved wooden signs and the local architecture which was largely Craftsman buildings with clapboard and board and batten design. They also wanted to try to keep any new development from being too large, garish, plastic or over-lighted.

Over a two-year period they crafted a Character Plan that provided a set of guidelines on new construction and renovations and made strong recommendations about things like the size, height, materials and lighting of signs. The regulations only applied in areas zoned “commercial” and “resort commercial.” There are only three streets so zoned and the plan exempted private homes.

The Character Plan was approved by the community. It became part of the official Whatcom County Code in 1994 and the county’s Planning and Development Services (PDS) agreed to adopt its guidelines when issuing permits for new projects. A Character Plan Committee (CPC) was established and began reviewing all new projects that fell under its umbrella before any permits were issued.

That was all well and good. Not surprisingly, the CP didn’t produce the kinds of economic gains or job growth that was hoped for but it did function in its own gentle way — for a while. The inevitable combination of demographic shift and ennui hit. Folks moved away, lost interest, got bored and dropped off the committee. Within a few years the CPC faded away and decisions fell to the personnel in PDS. Again, not surprisingly, the CP lost any remaining influence. New hires at PDS were often not given instructions about the guidelines; other agents simply forgot about it and projects began to be permitted that clearly violated the codes outlined in the CP.

In 2010 Whatcom County Council, working with several Point Roberts residents, established a Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRAC), the community’s first “official” advisory panel. It was established to function as a liaison between Point Roberts and the County Executive’s Office. PRAC assumed the role of the defunct CPC and began reviewing all new projects within the assigned zones before PDS would consider permitting.

In 2014 PRAC formed a Special Committee for the purpose of revising the twenty year-old CP. The committee spent two years gathering data, reviewing existing guidelines, exploring changes in the community since the original CP was drafted and holding several open meetings to get input from the larger Point Roberts community. The committee drafted a Revised Point Roberts Character Plan which was given to PRAC. They distributed the draft to the community and, following the procedures established back in ‘92, scheduled a town-hall meeting to get input from the larger community.

The announced purpose was to work to reach a consensus about the draft, in particular to resolve a number of fine points where the committee was unsure of the best, workable option. For example, whether buildings in the “West Coast Modern” architectural style are appropriate, whether private homes within the identified zones should be included, whether “sandwich board” signs which announce that a business is open are appropriate.

It never happened. The meeting turned into a donnybrook only barely held in check by the efforts of the Chair of PRAC who did a remarkably effective job of preventing fist fights and the hurling of chairs. And, of course, we never got around to even getting the Revised CP on the table for discussion.

The session began with one resident raising the question of solar panels. An effort to provide an answer (“yes, they are permitted so long as they are designed to resemble shingles or other approved roofing materials”) was shouted down by a man who jumped to his feet brandishing a sheaf of papers which he said were the two hundred plus signatures on a petition to repeal the entire Character Plan.

A resident who served on the revision committee pointed out that the CP played a critical role in our winning a long (and expensive) battle to keep an array of five 105’ radio transmission towers from being built and that repealing it would let the owners of the radio station build some other monstrosity on the land they still own. There was no sympathy (or understanding) of this critical point by the gentleman who continued angrily waving the petition.

The next two hours went straight down the rabbit hole. Person after person stood up and complained bitterly about the economy, the lack of jobs, their concerns about their children and grandchildren, where they were going to find work, how Point Roberts hasn’t had any serious business development in years, how depressed people are, how they’re forced to use our food bank, etc. etc. and etc.

The various people who were on the revision committee (including me) tried to respond by pointing out that the current economic difficulties were certainly not the result of the CP and that repealing wouldn’t help. One woman, who was on the original CP committee back in ‘92, tried to point out that the purpose of the CP was precisely to encourage business, not to limit it and certainly not to discourage it.

Many of those objecting refused to believe that the CP didn’t apply to private residents. Others raised fears of “regulation creep” without realizing that no such thing is possible. The Chair of PRAC tried his best to explain the actual process of guiding a project through the various committees and to reassure everyone that no new regulations can be introduced under existing county code. His effort, as an old colleague of mine put it, “entered one ear, finding no impediments to its travels, immediately exited the other.”

Another, long-time resident gave a rousing speech about how these goddamn committees were wasting everyone’s time worrying about how damn tall a building should be or what goddamn color paints are allowed when they should be finding ways to make jobs come to Point Roberts. Efforts to point out that creating jobs isn’t the mission of those who drafted the CP were hooted down.

Finally, after over two hours, the meeting was adjourned. The Revised CP is still in draft form. We never got the feedback on the issues we thought the community might have reasoned views on. And, of course, when we got to actually look at that “petition” it clearly has no legal force. It’s a bunch of names without addresses, phone numbers, email addresses or any other form of identification to show that the signers even exist, let alone live in Point Roberts or rent or own property here. It has no reasoned argument against the CP. It fails to note any downside to the CP or outline any rationale for thinking that repeal would improve the quality of life or the economic wellbeing of residents.

I guess we’re going to have another meeting…. We can do this. But, as one resident noted when we were walking out, “this is how we got Trump.”

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