Accessory units issue shows roles in policymaking

Some people in my life find arguing with me annoying, given some of the tendencies I have developed as an opinion writer. The tools are the same: Build a case to support a position. Use examples. Support them with logic. If necessary, deploy rhetorical or emotional flourish to underscore a point. The first – and, too often, only – person I convince of my rightness and righteousness is myself. What fun for those around me!

I am not unique in possessing this, um, skill, and as contentious policy debates unfold, its prevalence becomes apparent. The struggle for common ground on how to address the accessory dwelling units rampant in Durango, as well as those people would like to build here, is fertile ground for case-building. Taking a step back from those positions, though, reveals the roles played by City Council, city staff and citizen interest groups – all of whom seem to be taking the whole process quite personally. They should not, but it is easy to see how it happens.

The City Council is tasked with setting city policy according to a series of values and visions it has laid out for the community. These are embodied in the council’s commitment to its constituents, which is as follows: “We strive to offer great facilities and services that meet our residents’ and visitors’ needs. We are dedicated to promoting a sustainable economic viability while we responsibly steward our community’s resources. And finally, we have a strong commitment to protect our environment and preserve the open space of our beautiful natural lands. We hope you enjoy Durango as much as we do!”

These are values to which few could take exception and are subject to wide-ranging interpretations. Nevertheless, they demonstrate the level at which city councilors are considering their decisions: that of determining what is best for shaping the kind of city “we” want Durango to be. Such a position allows for high-minded ideas that promote admirable values but can be somewhat vague. One person’s livable community is another’s overcrowded neighborhood. In the policy process, it is the council’s role to strike the appropriate balance based on input from other key players.

Primary and most vocal among these are the residents and interest groups that have a stake in how ADUs – current and future – are handled. Those advocating for the units have a vested personal interest in maximizing the economic value of their properties and argue that the units provide the close-in affordable housing that fits with many city councilors’ vision for a vibrant and diverse community that provides housing options accessible to all who seek them. It certainly fits with council’s “commitment,” as it is written.

On the other side are the residents who vehemently oppose the idea of increasing the number of ADUs allowed in the city. This group has an economic interest as well, but it is one valued differently than those of their counterparts on the argument’s other side. To those opposed, an increase in neighborhood density via ADUs would compromise their value of privacy and neighborhood character – something they value more highly than the money an ADU might bring.

Either position is defensible and has merits. The council’s job is determining which fits best with its vision for the community, or better yet, how to create a blend that suits everyone’s needs.

Then there is the city planning staff who must balance diverging resident input against direction from the City Council, all while incorporating best planning practices. It is where the policy rubber meets the road, and where no side of the debate is wholly satisfied. The planning staff may well have a position with respect to ADU policy, but its role is to respond best to the direction it is given and make recommendations that reflect the standards of their profession. The staff may make a case for one direction or another, but that case is likely to be based on a careful balance of interests, input and political positions.

All of these players in the policy process are, of course, invested in their position. That is the human tendency that makes arguments such fun. We convince ourselves of our argument’s infallibility early on and rarely come off that position. That does not mean, though, that the other guy is evil, corrupt or stupid. More often, it means that he values something differently – but no less earnestly – and is just as committed to his version of the outcome, or hamstrung by irreconcilably competing interests. Keeping these roles and the positions that inform them in mind could ward off various players’ temptation to inflate with self-righteous indignation – even if in our heart of hearts, we all know we are right.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at meg@durangoherald.com.

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