Book ’em, Danno

Marilyn Marler just doesn’t get it. As City Council member seemingly in charge of Mt. Sentinel, Waterworks Hill, Mt. Jumbo and the North Hills, she wants to treat all dogs as scofflaws. As Greg Gordon, resident of the Rattlesnake, points out in a guest column in the Missoulian this is an extreme overreaction. But, Ms. Marler cries out, “She likes dogs!” … and deer, grouse, ground squirrels and baby bunnies. In classic fashion, she misses the issue all together.

As a scientist, Ms. Marler should know better. She claims, without any firm evidence, that dogs are a significant ecological impact on wildlife. Somehow I doubt that this is true. To suggest that deer and elk didn’t evolve with predators (and the attendant genetic advantage of being able to avoid or cope with predator pursuit) is naive. Further more I am confident that hunters cause much more harm to wildlife. Perhaps they are Ms. Marler’s next crusade.

No, this is a social problem. People need to learn to get along. As we all get to live in a more and more crowded country we should expect to run into people that we don’t particularly like. And those folks are going to do things that annoy us. That’s where poise and civility come in, as well as just plain simple tolerance of others’ foibles. ‘Live and let live’ might be one way of putting it. Or, of criticizing your own behavior before you take on the burden of worrying about everybody else’s.

Some of Ms. Marler’s compadres on City Council, like Dick Haines think taking the law into his own hands and personally dousing citizens with bear spray is a good idea. Sadly, it gets worse. Zoo Runner commented on Missoula Red Tape that people like him are going to start macing dog owners. Great. Maybe, soon we’ll have armed dog-owners pulling out their shotguns to protect themselves from City Councilors and trailrunners? Vigilante crews and poisoning of pets can’t be that far behind.

Of course, I’m sure Dick Haines keeps his family under voice control. In restaurants and in movie theaters, I mean. Those rugrats don’t yell and scream, run around the tables, throw food or kick other people under the table. No, of course not.

We don’t expect Haines to put his grandchildren on a leash in public places. And we don’t expect upset diners to bear-spray the little ones. Some people might call the cops on “other peoples children”, but most of us just roll our eyes and deal with it. Or stop frequenting family restaurants.

Most of us don’t mind the odd well-behaved toddler in any restaurant, no matter how fancy the establishment. That’s just part of living in a town, welcoming and tolerating all sorts of community members. There’s not likely to be any way to completely avoid the people you don’t like, nor their obnoxious behavior. Instead, we should be appreciating and celebrating all the people and creatures with whom we get to share this wonderful place.

So I hope Ms. Marler will stop trying to create a law or regulation for every annoyance or disturbance that might be brought to her attention. Instead, she might show a little more respect for the range of citizens that live in this town. We should stop treating one another like criminals and start enjoying all the beauty that surrounds us.

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ADUs and Density in Missoula

In a very telling opinion in today’s Missoulian, former city council member John Torma explains what all the fuss is about with ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units). Quite correctly, he boils it down to density:

Modest increases in … I’m going to use the “D” word now … density in our urban core neighborhoods will reap significant benefits in the area of transportation, i.e. miles not traveled, air not fouled, and vehicles not needed. As a historical housing type in our urban core neighborhoods, ADUs can bring a modest increase in density without significantly changing the character of our neighborhoods.

I am not a fan of ADUs. But, I do agree with greater density in inner neighborhoods. What ADUs do is force us to get density right. All the things people dislike about ADUs must be solved before we will support greater density.

My biggest gripe with ADUs (please don’t call them granny flats – she’ll die and we’ll be stuck with the consequences) is that they don’t meet the underlying zoning requirements. Often they are built right up to the rear alley. ADUs get built over the top of existing (and non-conforming) garages. They shade out the neighbors, block clear air circulation and choke out the view.

ADUs create more vehicles without the necessity of having to provide on-site parking. That means we’ll all soon be fighting for a parking spot outside our home. Your typical inner neighborhood home only has on-street parking for one or two vehicles. But, if you put your children, your parents, or a bunch of rent-paying college students into the ADU then you should have to provide the extra parking on your property. I know those paved lots are going to mess up your native grassland, but that just should be part of the deal.

ADUs should be required to be accessed from the front of the property. Our alleys weren’t designed to be streets, particularly since emergency vehicles don’t have a hope in heck in navigating most of them. Heaven help the fire-fighters trying to rescue your cat from a burning ADU. Moreover, alleys don’t have sidewalks and are quite unsafe for walking and playing. There aren’t enough lights, there’s no plowing, and folks don’t shovel the snow back there. More cars in alleys will mean more ice slicks in winter, more dust in summer, more vehicle exhaust, more accidents, and more vibration felt in neighboring homes. That’s not healthy.

But, these aren’t problems with ADUs alone. They are problems with greater density in general. If the City Council is going to approve these zoning changes in our neighborhoods then they should provide answers as to how they are going to protect everyone’s health and safety. And not just the elderly or other folks who are supposed to be benefiting from ADUs.

Nationalize this! Part II

All around the world discussion now includes the distinct possibility of the U.S. nationalizing its top banks. Alan Greenspan no less suggests, “it may be necessary to temporarily nationalise some banks in order to facilitate a swift and orderly restructuring.” And it was probably Senate Banking Committee Chair, Christopher Dodd, who made us all stand up and take notice when he said, “I’m concerned that we may end up having to do that, at least for a short time.” The Wall Street Journal even gave their coveted prime position on their Opinion page to an interview with Nouriel Roubini, the famed Dr. Doom of NYU’s Stern Business School, explaining the inevitability of a Swedish style takeover within six months.

Gosh knows we need new management of our big banks. The vast majority of the American public seems to have lost confidence in the imperial bank executives, what with toxic assets, choked-up capital, inadequate reserves, plummeting share prices, remodeled bathrooms, and private jets. Government management, however temporary, will seem mild by comparison.

And now we hear that the Obama administration fears the bankers might reject the bailout money because of the $1/2 million cap on executive compensation! Will they not stand up for what this nation needs rather than their own personal gain? If the financial system collapses, then how could it possibly be in the best interests of their company, their stockholders, or their customers? Let’s stop this game of moral hazard with the bankers, throwing good money after bad.

So, ask yourself, would you bank with the government? Do you have confidence in this country’s ability to pull itself together and climb out of this mess? I do. I own treasury bonds. I do so, not because I feel I will get hugely wealthy but rather because they pay a comfortable return with a sense of security and national benefit. I like the sense of collective rescue instead of a culture of fawning obsequiousness and dependence upon unaccountable, unresponsive mega-bank CEO’s.

We’re all in the together, so let’s band together to fix it. As I’ve said before, it’s not like we’re going to stop saving and lending. Go get your money and put it where you think it will do the most good. That’s right – go down to Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, and First Interstate Bank and ask for your money. Tell them you don’t think they are managing this country’s financial system appropriately. You might then put your money in a local credit union or a community bank or in treasury bonds. (All of which are paying quite reasonable returns, I might add.) Because if we don’t take charge, then the government will be left with no choice.

Where’s the vision, man?

Like many property owners in Missoula, I just received my first notification of city zoning changes. Only problem is that I don’t know what it means. I don’t see some grand vision for the future of Missoula and I don’t see much evidence of responding to citizen concerns.

Instead we are being told it is a zoning ordinance update, that the consultants were hired to tidy up the regulations, make them more consistent, more current and user-friendly. Problem is that in the process they are changing some of the fundamentals of residential zones, like set-backs, height restrictions, minimum lot sizes, and density calculations. They are also eliminating public hearings for ‘minor modifications to selected zoning ordinance standards and minimum lot area rquirements.”

Pardon me, but those are fundamental and major changes. To add insult to injury, the letter I received doesn’t tell me how the zoning for my property is changing. Instead, I have to go to a privately controlled website (http://missoula.duncanchicago.com/), to Denny’s copy shop (where I must give 24 hours notice to purchase a copy), stop by the public library or I can take time off work to trudge on down to OPG during office hours.

What irks me more, though, is the lack of any captivating reason why I should care. Beyond my own selfish concerns about I might be losing in terms of the value of my property and how it might be affected by what my neighbors are now allowed to do on their property. There is no mention of how this is going to improve our city, of how things will be better for all of us, of how we might want to agree to give up our own personal gain for the sake of some greater good.

So, I don’t think the good planners at OPG should be surprised when things get acrimonious. I can’t forsee how the City Council public hearing (7.00pm April 27th) is going to go well. Instead, I see individuals getting up and complaining about their pet peeve. Nit, nit, nit. It could well go late into the night, or else Mayor Engen might have to cut people off mid-rant. Heck, if Lee Clemensen or Jane Rectenwald or Professor Frey or Celeste Rivers get going, it should be a good show. Better set your TiVo to record the MCAT showing!

Compare this with the forward thinking that Richard Florida is arguing will determine the economic winners and losers in the city and region stakes of the future. Check out the most recent issue of The Atlantic. Now, you may or may not agree with Florida’s argument but at least he has a well reasoned vision of what prosperous communities will look like:

We need to encourage growth in the regions and cities that are best positioned to compete in the coming decades: the great mega-regions that already power the economy, and the smaller, talent-attracting innovation centers inside them—places like Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin, and the North Carolina Research Triangle.

If it can work for other towns that are centers of higher education and health care (like those highlighted above) which have an attractive and tolerant quality of life, then why shouldn’t we be discussing these sorts of big ideas here in Missoula?

Shoot the messenger?

Pogie, over at Intelligent Discontent, has done some excellent spading on the Montana Meth Project. I won’t steal the thunder of that post (go read it, I’ll wait right here), but I know what comes next. Peg Shea, the ever-so-highly-remunerated Executive Director of the project, will belittle our erstwhile blogger!

That’s right – instead of defending against the charges or providing counter arguments, I can predict Shea will come out swinging: Saturation-level marketing with all the scary reasons why we wouldn’t dare believe a single criticism. Like an attack dog, it’ll be snarling, political posturing. Maybe we’ll even get a veritable posse of upset high-schoolers?

That’s the warm Montana welcome that scientist David Erceg-Hurn, of the University of Western Australia, got when he concluded in a peer-reviewed journal article that “there is no evidence that reductions in methamphetamine use in Montana are caused by the advertising campaign.” (Gregg Smith, at Electric City Weblog, has a link to the journal article here).

Initially, all Peg Shea could say was that Erceg-Hurn’s “limited analysis and statements are greatly outnumbered by the positive changes in attitudes detailed in our surveys and third-party research.” Many of us are waiting to see that third-party research published, fully open to scientific scrutiny. We might be waiting a long while.

Then former Montana Meth Project employee (and UM history major) Tony Brockman came out with the following piercing critique: “The report is from Western Australia … We can walk out on Main Street and see the differences here.

And now in a letter to the Missoulian, Peg Shea hisses ,

He has never been to Montana, and has never bothered to sit down with me or anyone else to discuss his research or to ask questions about our data. He and his organization do not respond to calls or letters from researchers about their methodology. Although he presumes to study our young people and to tell our legislators how to spend our money, Erceg-Hurn has spent no time actually speaking with Montana teens.

I suspect that Erceg-Hurn checks his mailbox every day for the $2,000 plane ticket to come over and meet Ms. Shea. However, as a scientist that’s not his first instinct. Instead, he is probably already designing the next study, reading all the prior research, planning the data collection, cranking the analysis, and writing up the next paper for consideration by his scientific peers. I am sure he is eager to see his first paper debated in scientific circles.

I don’t think Shea would have shared her data with a researcher clearly skeptical of the project. I’m not even convinced she has scientifically reputable data to share. Either way, I think Erceg-Hurn’s methodology is obvious enough in his published journal article. It’s not complicated. Maybe it’s not even very good. But Shea probably doesn’t know that. She’s too busy attacking the messenger.

Don’t blame the koalas!

The Australian bushfires have been shocking, just shocking. And as we would expect the media coverage has been half parts sensationalism and half human tragedy. Even though the embers are still burning and people’s homes are still at risk, the political blame game has begun.

Sam the KoalaI heard Wilson Tuckey, outspoken conservative MP, on the BBC saying that the fires were caused by locking up the forests in reserves. Nevermind that southeastern Australia has had severe drought conditions for much of the last decade. And forget that temperatures have been in the 114 degree range. And don’t consider that Australia has some of the best fire managers in the world. No, Tuckey knows better than the experts.

Professor Peter Kanowski, from the Australian National University, explains that the fuel loads of these tall, wet eucalypt forests aren’t easy to manage. Usually, they are too damp for fuel reduction burns. But, when extremely hot, dry weather comes along (as it did this weekend) it is too risky to burn-off. And it doesn’t matter whether the forests are in a park, a tree farm, or a managed forest.

So, as is the case here in Western Montana, it would seem that blowhard politicians ignore science and reality (and Tuckey should know better because he was once a wildland firefighter) only to pursue their favorite agenda. Amidst the emotional tenor of the media coverage, though, you can almost forgive them because they know it is not a time for reasoned, considered argument. The public is traumatized and vulnerable and many will cling to whatever kneejerk reaction gives most relief.

My favorite comment, though, is this one:

“I would compare this current bushfire event to one of the ghosts in Dickens’ Christmas Carol that visits Scrooge and showed him what his future would be like if he didn’t change his ways,” said professor Barry Brook, director of the Research Institute for Climate Change and Sustainability at the University of Adelaide.

Reasons to be Cheerful (part 1)

radioactive

There’s lots of reasons to be cheerful. Maybe more nuclear energy will be one. Beginning this series of posts, I can’t help but ponder a number of questions.

Let’s start with nuclear waste. We already have spent fuel rods in storage at 121 operating and decommissioned reactors spread across 39 states of the union. Before we build anymore, I think it would be smart to figure out where all that nuclear waste is going.

But, of course, all that radioactive waste is safe, right? Like the unreported radioactive waste water spill near Godley, Ill. in 2006? Or the Braidwood nuclear plant, also in Illinois, that had been releasing wastewater containing traces of radioactive tritium into groundwater surrounding the plant since 1996? Or the radioactive barium, iodine, cesium, and cobalt that continue to leak from this country’s first nuclear reactor, Fermi? Did I mention it was also in Illinois?

Are we going to put the nuclear power plant in your backyard? Do you feel safe enough to live downstream of one? If not, then will you be happy having nuclear waste being trucked through your community? I can see it now, driving down the Main Street or trundling along the railway tracks … 55,000 metric tones of highly radioactive waste. Of course, those trucks won’t get in accidents and break open, will they?