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ENGAGED City, neighborhood give lesson in civics

By JIM PAXTON

The recent interplay between Paducah officials and everyday citizens over a difficult zoning decision would make a great chapter for a civics book.

You remember civics -- if you are old enough. Webster's Dictionary defines it as: "The study of the rights and duties of citizens and of how government works."

The recent collision of interests between residents of a long-established neighborhood along Pecan Drive and a businessman's proposal to place a skilled nursing facility on land abutting it provides a classic example of how -- we think anyway -- communities should engage such matters.

Many Pecan Drive residents opposed development of a commercial project on land which, like their own, had long been zoned single-family residential. The developer needed a zone change to proceed with his plans. He proposed a 100-bed skilled nursing facility for his 18-acre parcel, a project that could be expanded in the future.

The neighbors wanted no part of it. They raised the objections one typically hears in zoning arguments: noise, traffic problems, stormwater runoff and potential future encroachment of other, less compatible commercial activities on an established neighborhood.

Those objections, while perhaps routine, were hardly specious. Flooding has been a serious problem in the Pecan Drive area for generations. The extent to which this development may materially worsen the problem is debatable but not a matter that can be dismissed out of hand.

The more salient objection in our view is traffic. A serious bottleneck already exists where Buckner Lane intersects Pecan Drive. Traffic can back up for blocks there at certain times of day. One can easily see how the comings and goings of staff, visitors and commercial deliveries at the planned nursing facility will magnify this problem.

Neighborhood residents did the best job of organizing and defending their interests that we have seen in many years. They articulated their objections in letters to the newspaper. They attended public meetings in number, bringing pressure to bear on local elected officials. They blanketed the area with yard signs stating objections, giving the issue an unusually high public profile.

It presented Paducah's new and politically inexperienced mayor, Brandi Harless, a stern early test; one we believe she handled well.

Harless delayed a city commission vote on the proposed change. She and two commission colleagues met with residents on their home turf to seek a middle ground. She then met with the developer to ask for additional accommodations that would help mitigate noise and water issues. She also developed proposals to improve the traffic situation and potentially revise the city's master plan to protect the neighborhood in the future.

City officials faced difficult choices in this matter. Skilled nursing facilities are needed here. We already have an older-than-average local population and that is only going to grow as Baby Boomers continue to age. The city also needs the jobs and, frankly, the tax revenue the project will generate. The interests of the neighborhood were up against competing needs of the broader community.

The zone change was ultimately passed by the city commission last week. The residents are understandably not very pleased. But we hope they will appreciate the fact that the local government did not simply run over them, as is sometimes the case elsewhere.

Harless and the commission made a serious effort not just to listen, but to find ways to help them. This is how it ought to work. It was a classic lesson in civics, and we believe it was a good one.

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