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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Community Values Influence Land-Use Decisions?

Judy Nadler

This is one of a series of fictional case studies based on real ethical dilemmas. It is designed to promote questions and commentary. We welcome your participation.

With unemployment at an all-time high and 50 percent of the downtown shops vacant, Tony Pell, mayor of Weldon, had been working with a regional business-development agency to revitalize what most locals called “the dead downtown.” So when a restaurant chain inquired about opening at the location of a closed steak house, the good news spread fast.

But as soon as identity of the restaurant was revealed, the celebration ended. “Why would be want to welcome ‘Cahoots’ to our town?” asked the president of the Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t want to say no to any new business, but a restaurant that looks and feels more like a Las Vegas casino is not what we want in our town.”

Brian Petrillo, regional vice president for the chain, came to the city council meeting when the item was first agendized to calm the critics and promote the project. ‘”The demographics for our restaurant are perfect for a town of 50,000,’ he explained. “Two Cahoots have opened recently in the region, and the synergy is really going to be to your advantage.”

Although few at the council meeting had actually visited the chain, many had seen television ads for the two new locations and were quick to criticize its “tawdry” bar and dining room. “Our interior décor reflects our philosophy – folks should have fun with their dining experience. We believe our theme draws customers but our food keeps them coming back,” explained Petrillo.

Michelle Kennedy, chair of the city planning commission, was one of many who came up to the podium to speak. “I was shocked when our family entered the restaurant while on a recent vacation. The young waitresses were in scanty costumes that made them look and act more like bar wenches than meal servers. The music was loud, and there was a large stage in the middle of the dining room, so we couldn’t avoid watching the ‘dancing.’ We couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”

Kirk McGuire, owner of several vacant properties downtown said a new restaurant would be a boon and would draw customers as well as other businesses. Several other business owners agreed. “That building that been vacant for five years—it’s past time to turn it into a chain like Cahoots. Besides, if we say no they’ll take their restaurant to a business-friendly town down the road.”

“We need to make sure that all parties get the facts and make sure the city council makes its decision based on good land-use planning rather than relying on emotion and hearsay,” cautioned the mayor. “ So I am recommending a subcommittee of downtown property owners and retailers who will meet with the city manager, city planner, and police chief. The applicant will prepare a presentation and the subcommittee will issue a report at a joint meeting of the planning commission and city council. We’ll make sure there will be plenty of time for the public to speak.”

“We all have our own personal preferences,” explained the city manager, “but we cannot let those individual opinions jeopardize the revitalization of our downtown.”

Discussion questions. Please post your responses in the comment section.

• If Cahoots meets all the zoning, parking, and other land-use planning requirements, is it fair for the city council to deny their application?

• What weight should council members give the moral values/objections of some in the community versus the support of others?

• Since the chair of the planning commission shared her opinion on the restaurant before an application was filed, should she recuse herself from further discussion and abstain when the vote is taken?

• If the restaurant is approved, what could be done to repair the rift in the community?

• Do you believe this controversy is likely to have an impact on other companies seeking to relocate to downtown? Why or why not?

Sep 13, 2011
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