I would like to share some of my own experiences with local zoning.
In 1996 I applied for a permit to build a storage barn. I never dreamed that zoning would be a problem since I lived far from the village on top of a mountain. How naïve I was! I had to jump through all sorts of hoops, pay this fee, that fee, and the other fee, and suffer delays in our short work season.
We had a new code enforcement officer in the town and as it turns out, others were having even worse problems some being summoned to court for zoning violations.
I got together with a neighbor, a water well driller, who had been cited, and we advertised on a rented sign in front of his office that there would be a meeting to discuss problems with zoning.
About 40 people attended the meeting and it was one horror story after another. By the end of the meeting a handful of people had volunteered to form a committee.
We began to hold weekly committee meetings to discuss issues and plan strategy. We named the committee the Allegany Citizens Rights Committee (ACRC) and kept minutes of the meetings.
We began attending all Town Council meetings and all Planning Board meetings. At first we tape-recorded them. We requested documents using the Freedom of Information Law and attended court appearances for zoning charges. Eventually charges against all those we supported were dropped.
We had 2 monthly public meetings at a rural fire station. These were informational - we attempted to make citizens aware of the problem. These were met with limited success partly because of the remote location.
About this time I talked to Carol LaGrasse and she offered to speak at a meeting if we thought we could get 50 people out. We met with Carol and discussed our plans.
We then went home and started advertising. We issued press releases to newspapers over a wide area, to radio stations and local cable TV. We distributed fliers and advertised by word of mouth. We sent letters to the editor and advertised on signs in front of businesses.
We rented the community center in the village.
We had to hold up the start of the meeting for half an hour because people were waiting in line to get in the door. In all, 240 attended.
Well, we made the front page! We were no longer radical crackpots, but a force to be reckoned with!
At the 1996 election, there was a one year seat on the Town Council available, so we petitioned and obtained an independent party status. We called our party the "Citizens Rights Party" with the symbol being a flag with the words "We the People."
We also got people to attend the Republican Caucus and, lo and behold, our man got the endorsement! Although we didn't win the election, we did get 42% of the vote. Most of the votes were on the Republican ticket. The independent was way down in the lower corner of the ballot, presenting what we feel was a visibility problem.
After our successful meeting with Carol as guest speaker, we continued to have monthly public meetings. We used a church basement which would accommodate smaller crowds at lower cost. Attendance ranged from 35 to 75 people.
We always devoted part of the meeting to an update on current issues.
At one meeting we got Nathan Lapp, who successfully kept zoning out of his home town, to speak.
At a particularly successful meeting, a few of our own committee members told about their own experiences.
We also discussed related issues. At another meeting Nathan's father and sister Rachel spoke on citizen's rights and Rachel introduced her and her sister Barbara Lynn's new book. She sold several copies. We had substantial donations that night, so ACRC purchased two copies to donate to local libraries as a memorial to one of our supporters who had recently passed away.
We showed a videotape from the last year's Property Rights Conference of Vicky Khoury's presentation of her family's ordeal.
In the summer it is hard to get a crowd, so we sent newsletters.
Some Tips on Conducting Public Meetings:
At public meetings we have a table by the door with a sign-in sheet for names, addresses and phone numbers. We have fliers of items of interest, examples, and related issues. We also have a can for donations.
At every meeting we would post a suitable quote on the walls. Quotes from the founding fathers are good, for example one from Ben Franklin:
"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
Of course we always have free coffee, tea, juice and lots of homemade cookies, and seasonal decorations.
The meeting should be structured and not run too late.
If individuals wish they may stay and discuss issues.
The way to get people to come is to call by telephone a day or two before - not too early - they will forget. It doesn't take as long as you would think if you share. Put a notice in the newspaper also.
Don't forget to invite reporters.
Some Other Strategies:
Write letters to the editor. Learn how to write effective letters that will get the message across concisely and will avoid excessive editing. The goal is to have the letter printed as is.
Network with other towns and groups. Support and attend their meetings if possible.
We wrote a letter to the Town Council offering our assistance.
We cut and pasted from the zoning ordinance a one page flier of really bad provisions.
When the Town named a Zoning Advisory Committee we volunteered and got two of our people on it.
We have a can at meetings for donations. We made videos of guest speakers and sold copies, sold ACRC hats, and accepted private donations.
The best fund raiser has been a soda pop machine acquired by one of our members. It was installed in front of another member's office. This member voluntarily buys the pop on sale, keeps the machine stocked, and handles the money.
For the 1997 election, there were two board seats available. Since both major parties had traditionally endorsed by caucus in our town, we used our calling list and got people to attend both caucuses, offering rides. There were record breaking crowds at both! The Democrats endorsed me and one of the incumbents. The Republicans endorsed me and Terry Hitchcock of ACRC, who ran in 1996. The other incumbent was not endorsed although he ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign.
Well, I got elected and Terry didn't. We campaigned jointly with no mud slinging on our part, although we were accused of representing a "self-serving special interest group."
Some Final Notes:
I want to stress these very important points:
Always be professional, courteous, honest, and sincere. Do not point fingers.
Study, know and understand what you are talking about.
Have documentation! Have documentation! Have documentation!
Do not be confrontational. You can debate issues, but do it courteously.
You have to have a few key persons who are dedicated enough to keep on top of everything. (In our group, it boils down to two or three who really keep the ball rolling). One person may be able to do it, but it would be tough.
You do not need to have tremendous resources. I only had one rotary dial telephone. Nobody had a computer. Terry's employer donated use of his copier and my wife Pat did the typing on her computer at work... on her break!
It can be very discouraging at times and can seem to be hopeless. One week ago I really wondered if I could honestly make this presentation as a "successful grassroots leader" but some encouraging things have happened in just the past week.
Don't expect too much too fast - that only works in movies. A friend called me after the election and I was obviously discouraged about only gaining the one town council seat. He told me that this business is like losing weight.
We have made progress but sometimes we suffer setbacks. Others have tried reform in our town, but we have accomplished more since our first meeting in June 1996 than anyone else ever has.
I have been part of an effort to gain a very limited grandfathering amendment to a provision of a 1985 Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act that was particularly onerous to small operators. After 12 years of tremendous grassroots effort and many, many trips to the Pennsylvania State Capital, we finally got our amendment last November. Persistence pays off!
I wish you Good Luck, Perseverance, and that you always stay on the side of Truth and Justice! God bless!