Bluffton citizens deserve public negotiations on massive change in neighborhoods | Opinion

Put yourself in the position of the Bluffton residents who bought into a certain lifestyle in a new neighborhood, only to discover that an A-bomb was about to explode next door.

That empty tract of land in the Alston Park development in New Riverside that was to have 76 homes, based on town-approved plans, could suddenly have 282 homes jammed into it, they learned.

It’s unfair to nearby residents for the town to consider such a drastic increase from the original proposal from Village Park Homes LLC. One obvious warning is this: Every buyer in town needs to beware.

But for the town to then negotiate the proposal in secret has made everything worse.

Some welcome relief came Wednesday afternoon when a Bluffton committee that negotiates development plans on the town’s behalf recommended denying the most recent proposal from Village Park Homes. The committee recommendation would further reduce to 74 from 175 the number of additional units that could be built. That total would then be 150 new homes, not 282.

Perhaps the committee listened to the public outcry.

But we stand with the citizen who told the town Negotiating Committee before it went into closed session Wednesday that it lacked transparency.

“We have a right and a need to know your position on this matter,” Isabel Miller said. “Are you for it? Against it? Are you worried about increased traffic and the impact on our wetlands, flood plains and roads? ... We don’t know your concerns because there has been no public discussion.”

And, to our interpretation of the state Freedom of Information Act, the town’s Negotiating Committee broke the law when earlier this month it met in closed session with representatives of the developer.

The law says public bodies may close meetings to the public for “discussion of negotiations incident to proposed contractual arrangements.” That does not mean the town can go behind closed doors to negotiate with a third party — the developer. Discussion of negotiations is not the same as actual negotiations. The negotiation between the town and the developer should be 100 percent in public.

Bluffton leaders say the Negotiating Committee actually opens the development process to greater public involvement. It adds a step in the process that otherwise would not be there. That’s a good point that would be welcome accountability — if, and only if, the give-and-take is done in public.

At stake are crowded neighborhoods, streets and schools. Legitimate questions about the environment also have been raised by nearby residents. Also at stake are less tangible, but equally real things, like lifestyle and quality of life.

The public deserves to know how the town is addressing each concern, and not after the deal is negotiated.

How many homes does the town think are too many? Why? Who will pay for the new intersections or traffic controls that will be needed, and when and where will it happen? What does the school district say? Who went to bat for the developer, and why? Who went to bat for the nearby residents?

The public deserves a front-row seat to watch all of this unfold, throughout the process, not at the end, when a proposed deal gets moved on to the Planning Commission and then Town Council.

Town Council needs to open the doors now, because development agreements reached 20 years ago are just now starting to hit home.

These are all public matters, and Town Council and its Negotiating Committee are public bodies.

That’s why the Freedom of Information Act specifically protects the public’s right to know what public representatives are thinking, doing and saying. Mayor Lisa Sulka says to trust the process. We’d like to. But the public wants more than that. And the sure way to get public trust is to conduct public business in public.