PB: The Death of Common Sense

by SDM

In his 1994 book titled “The Death of Common Sense,” author Philip K. Howard relates a sad-but-true story from New York City.  The actual Mother Teresa and the Nuns of the Missionaries of Charity attempted to build a homeless shelter in a desperately poor and rundown section of the South Bronx.

The nuns had cobbled together $500,000 to renovate two burnt-out structures. The story goes that the nuns selected the location after “finding a Madonna in the rubble.”  Mayor Ed Koch quickly agreed and the city approved transferring the structures to the nuns for $1.

The problems started when the nuns ran into the city development bureaucracy. In the end, Mother Teresa abandoned the project when the city demanded the nuns install an an elevator, which both the city and the nuns agreed they did not need, but which was required by code. Mother Teresa seems to have decided it was better to spend $100,000 on feeding and clothing the homeless instead of helping them avoid the stairs.

Mr. Howard introduced his book using this anecdote to challenge the mindset prevalent – unfortunately still – in much of bureaucratic America: namely, that we as a society tend to sacrifice our common sense when we blindly follow governing laws and regulations without questioning whether those rules actually improve our lives.

SDM couldn’t help but think of The Death of Common Sense while reading the village zoning agenda for the upcoming February 25th meeting. On the one hand, Palmetto Bay’s extremely detailed analysis of the child care and school applications gives comfort to residents that applications are being evaluated objectively. On the other hand, SDM wonders whether the village has gone overboard in its regulatory framework. Must this process be so complex?

This question is especially apt for the two applications the village is making of itself – you heard that right: the village is applying to itself – and holding multiple public hearings – for parks’s master plan changes and zoning changes to existing village parks to permit batting cages,  mini-soccer fields, tennis lighting and benches.

Each of the applications exceeds thirty pages. Each surely took unknown hours of Parks staff time to produce and Planning & Zoning staff time to evaluate. Village Manager Ron Williams is both the “owner” of the property and the person recommending that the council approve the applications!

Now, SDM understands and respects the idea that neighbors should have a formal process to hear about changes to the use of the parks. But, SDM Wonders: is it really necessary to hold multiple public hearings to accomplish this task?

SDM Says: Mother Teresa would probably ague that Parks Director Carmona’s time would be better spent providing services to the children just at Director Del Salle’s time would be better spent helping the public understand Palmetto Bay’s development code.


SDM Observation: The applications for the day care center to be built adjacent to Fuddruckers and the modification of Westminster School’s site plan could be revolutionary – Palmetto Bay might live up to its oft-stated commitment to education for the first time in a long, long time!

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