Zoning out

04Oct19

So, now they want Zoning Board of Appeals meetings to be televised. The suggestion was made recently at a televised Town Council meeting. Misery loves company, I suppose.

There’s nothing TV viewers would rather watch than deliberations over dimensional variances and nonconforming uses — unless you count the Watching Paint Dry Channel.

To help promote interest, I’ve taken the liberty of writing the following TV listing:

Wednesday, 7:00 p.m. The Appeals Zone. Tune in tonight for the thrilling conclusion of the case of John Smith’s deck. Will he be granted the variance he needs to construct the deck in his backyard? Or will he be dealt another ‘setback’ by the ZBA?

And why stop with the ZBA? Let’s televise meetings of all boards and committees. We could start with the 19 local committees concerned with climate and environmental issues. We’ll call it, “Envision Wakefield Television.”

Thursday, 7:00 p.m. Conservation Commission: SVE. Will a Determination of Applicability be issued? Is an Abbreviated Notice of Resource Area Delineation in the cards? Tune in tonight at 7.

When WCAT was created in the 1990s, it inherited the cable company’s contractual obligation to televise the Board of Selectmen (Town Council), the School Committee and Town Meeting. But periodically, the idea crops up that even more boards should be covered.

This is not a new idea. It was discussed way back in the last century when I was on the Cable Advisory Committee. It usually comes up when people get the idea in their heads that some board or committee is slacking off or not doing its job properly. They think that showing their meetings on TV will expose any shenanigans.

One of the trendier complaints currently circulating on social media is that the town is being overdeveloped and “turned into a city” due to all the multi-unit housing being constructed. In 2019, every perceived problem must have a corresponding villain. So, some people have decided that the Zoning Board of Appeals is going too easy on developers.

Those people have never actually attended a Board of Appeals hearing. But now they want them televised, the better to second guess their decisions.

I never thought it was possible to feel sympathy for a developer until I started attending ZBA meetings. More than a few developers have complained bitterly that Wakefield’s ZBA makes them jump through more hoops than any other town. If you don’t believe it, ask the developer of of the “Greenwood Station” 40B project.

People think the ZBA does nothing but hand out Special Permits and variances for multi-unit high rises. In fact, much of what they do pertains to single-family homeowners who just want to build a patio or put a pool in the backyard.

In theory, if someone feels strongly that a local meeting or event ought to be televised, they should go to WCAT, get trained on the equipment and volunteer to produce the coverage. That’s the way public access television is supposed to work. It isn’t supposed to be the paid staff catering to every fleeting whim. Staff are supposed to provide training and support, with volunteers from the community producing the bulk of the programming. That’s why it’s called “public access” or “community television.”

So who is supposed to cover the ZBA’s twice monthly meetings that often go past midnight and into the wee hours of the morning? WCAT’s full-time staff? Or part-time staffers after they get home from their own day jobs? How many volunteers would be willing to stand behind the cameras for five or six hours while the ZBA ponders such riveting topics as side setbacks, driveway widths and dumpster locations?

Televising interminable meetings that no one is going to watch would not be an efficient use of limited resources. Besides, WCAT has bigger fish to fry — like worrying about their very existence if the cable companies make good on their threat to pull the plug on funding.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for TV coverage of ZBA meetings. This too shall pass.

[This column originally appeared in the October 3, 2019 Wakefield Daily Item.]



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