Better Public Outreach
I am with Friends of Rattlesnake Creek (RC) and am heartened that you are taking up this much-needed review of your public outreach processes. Based on our experience this past winter, which led to the withdraw of access by a key homeowner and the demise of the RC project, communication shortcomings resulted in frustrations all the way around (including community members, the DPU leadership and City Council).
It is true that some form of cursory public hearings for the project occurred at an earlier time (as much as 5 years earlier). But at that time, critical aspects of the project were not shared with the public (e.g., that an environmental impact study was not conducted, that the source of the problem—the upstream watershed—was not adequately addressed, that the limit of disturbance involved clearing of as much as 100' from one side to the other., etc.).
Most of the Friends of RC were not living in the area when that earlier public hearing occurred. Further, the way they found about the impending project this past fall was by the neighbor—the very person who had agreed to allow access to RC in fall 2020, and ultimately rescinded that agreement after the full measure of the destructive so-called “restoration” project was exposed by the Friends.
Here are two lessons learned from that debacle:
- More strenuous, good faith efforts are needed to reach the affected communities. Your guidelines currently include outreach to those community members who “who have requested to be notified of regulatory actions being pursued by the agency.” This is clearly insufficient. Had we not been notified by a neighbor, the disastrous project would have gone forward as planned. Perhaps for you, the DEQ “Town Halls” seem adequate and analogous to physical town halls. However, they most assuredly do not reach the vast majority of community members, perhaps even less so in less-resourced communities where access to internet remains limited. In addition to mail campaigns, DEQ should reach out through community listservs such as Nextdoor and actively cultivate a list of community activists and advocates (per the Skeo 2020 study recommendations).
- Public hearings need to provide transparent pros and cons of the proposal. This is also consistent with the Skeo study that recommended that the DEQ develop “tools to provide more transparent, accessible and real-time environmental information to the public.” It is somewhat understandable that DEQ staff, City Council members, and others, after months and years of effort, would approach a public hearing expeditiously. However, that is not a valid reason for doing so. Expediency over transparency leads to superficial reviews and deeper setbacks for the agencies (as in the case of RC) or substantial waste and harm to local and regional ecosystems (such as the Maury Creek and Albro Creek “restorations”). Your role is to inform the public as thoroughly and transparently as possible. Or, as Skeo notes, to “proactively and authentically engage communities on issues and decision-making that could potentially affect their health and quality of life.”
Thank you for your serious attention to these and other concerns (time of day, location, advance notification, response periods, etc.).
1130 West Ave
Richmond, VA 23220