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November 16, 2010 > Editorial: Tribble trouble

Editorial: Tribble trouble

Cute and seemingly innocuous, Tribbles were created and attained instant stardom when they were the focus of a Star Trek episode in 1967. Soft, gentle asexual creatures, Tribbles produce a pleasant, soothing sound to the human ear. The species eat and reproduce at an astounding pace and, as in the Star Trek episode, "The Trouble with Tribbles," can wreak havoc. Captain Kirk soon found that these creatures, as adorable as they might be, were eating their way through a precious store of grain and interfering with operation of his starship.

Real or not, these fuzzy creatures represent the epitome of unintended consequences arising from initial decisions that appear rational and either inconsequential or benign. In just about any walk of life however, Tribbles can and do appear, multiplying at a prodigious rate until their impact cannot be ignored.

Current contemplation of a new General Plan and its implications is a case in point. It is often said that when dealing with complex documents, "the devil is in the details." This is another way of commenting on the Tribbles within. When planning for city growth, rather than intentional and evident incorrect decisions, consequences of zoning and land use decisions may become evident only after many years of transformation.

Recently, an appeal of a land use change was brought before the Fremont City Council. Conversion of residential property to commercial use for a day care center at the corner of Mattos Drive and Fremont Boulevard in Centerville was under review due to a decision by the Planning Commission to deny the application. Opposition centered on code modifications proposed by City staff to allow use of the property as a pre-school facility. Proponents argued that the school operated efficiently and successfully in another location and should be allowed to expand to the new property. The appellant argued that since the use fit within a commercial definition, the appeal could not be denied.

The conclusion of this hearing actually revolved around a simplistic and what most of the council felt was an undeniable factor. The Land Use Element of the Fremont General Plan advocated use of the property as commercial, considered a "conforming use." Continued residential occupancy, while allowed, was a "non-conforming use" and less desirable to the goals of the General Plan. Therefore, arguments of safety, legal modifications, intended use, integrity of occupants or the effect on the neighborhood became immaterial. Only Councilmember Harrison disagreed, siding with a vocal group of Glenmoor residents, while Councilmember Chan found a sudden and impelling reason to skip the meeting and emotionally charged debate.

An area of concern that appeared during the dispute could be found in variances from city ordinances that Staff was inclined to consider for the day care facility. Since much of this is done outside public view, issues of parking, trash, safety, excess square footage to name a few seemed to be of little concern to them. However, what staff might consider minor and inconsequential may actually create significant Tribble impacts. The result of all these Tribbles which show up on planning maps and in administrative decisions can mount and become a danger signal for future land use decisions.

Waiving FAR restrictions of parking on the Mattos property under a flimsy argument that upstairs space will not be used for day care and therefore doesn't count, is disingenuous. Parking restrictions are included in planning documents for a reason, but staff waived them away as Tribbles. A factor as mundane as garbage collection was swept under the carpet as a residential sized issue rather than commercial although a staff and group of children using such a facility will obviously create additional trash than a single family home. These are a few of the concerns that arose during the evening of debate and appear to be dismissed as Tribbles. Are they?

The larger issue is whether change of classification and use is the real problem. What happens after a use change is granted and a laundry list of variances is granted combined with an attitude of blind obedience to a course of action without deference to Tribbles. Are neighborhoods and quality of life issues to be ignored when in conflict with almighty planners?

Close inspection of how the Planning Department administers variances is just as important as the intended use. Where are the checks and balances in this case? Will councilmembers or planning commissioners review a process that is filled with Tribbles or simply continue to debate and forget?

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