Cell Tower Siting “In Writing” Requirement: Not What it Seems?

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In T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell the Supreme Court will decide whether a letter denying a cell tower construction application that doesn’t explain the reasons for the denial meets the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA) “in writing” requirement.

T-Mobile applied to construct a 108-foot cell tower in an area zoned single-family residential.  The City of Roswell’s ordinance only allowed “alternative tower structures” in such a zone that were compatible with “the natural setting and surrounding structures.”  T-Mobile proposed an “alternative tower structure” in the shape of a man-made tree that would be about 25-feet taller than the pine trees surrounding it.

After a hearing, where city council members stated various reasons for why they were going to vote against the application, Roswell sent T-Mobile a brief letter saying the application was denied and that T-Mobile could obtain hearing minutes from the city clerk.

The TCA requires that a state or local government’s decision denying a cell tower construction permit be “in writing.”  The district court and other circuit courts have held that the TCA requires a written decision and a written record that explain why the city council’s majority rejected the application.

The Eleventh Circuit disagreed relying on a plain reading of the statute.  The TCA doesn’t say that “the decision [must] be ‘in a separate writing’ or in a ‘writing separate from the transcript of the hearing and the minutes of the meeting in which the hearing was held’ or ‘in a single writing that itself contains all of the grounds and explanations for the decision.’”

So, you might ask…why would the Court that decided whether the Affordable Care Act was constitutional resolve a seemingly trifling issue like what “in writing” means?  Well, the majority of the cases the Supreme Court accepts involve circuit splits where federal courts have ruled differently on the exact same issue.  Circuit splits arise in cases important and mundane and involve issues big and small.

And the impact of T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell on local governments should not necessarily be underestimated.  First, the remedy for failing to meet the “in writing” requirement isn’t a do over—it is a granting of the permit.  Second, meeting the “in writing” requirement as T-Mobile would have it might be harder than you think.  Particularly in a small town, the person preparing the denial likely will not be a sophisticated telecom lawyer who understands the intricacies of the Telecommunications Act.

The State and Local Legal Center will file an amicus brief in this case supporting Roswell.

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About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

WUF7: Final Thoughts on My Week in Medellin

This is the seventh post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to a tour of the city of Medellin, the trip would have been worth it. This is truly a city on the rise. Gone is the violence and narco-terror for which the city was famous. In its place is a young, vibrant city filled with new libraries and schools serving some of the poorest neighborhoods; parks that include concert halls, a planetarium and computer learning centers; and a metro system that runs the length and width of the city, employing traditional rail cars, cable cars and escalators.

Its town center or “el Centro” is filled with the wonderful and massive sculptures of Fernando Botero, a Medellin native, whose work is wonderfully sardonic and sarcastic at the same time, and includes a small gem of a museum that proudly displays Colombia’s pre-Columbian, colonial and modern artists. Its neighborhoods are diverse and reflective of a city that is growing but retaining a “small town” feel. Looking out over the city at night from a bar atop the Charlee Hotel in the Poblado, one can feel the pulsating rhythms of this increasingly successful business center.

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to participation in the mayor’s roundtable on urban equity and the new urban agenda, the trip also would have been worth it. This was truly a roundtable that demonstrated the optimism that exists among city leaders from around the world to create “cities of opportunity” — cities where the poorest and most disadvantaged are able to take advantage of what their city has to offer so they can create a better life for themselves and their families.

As I reported in my fourth and fifth blogs, in its broadest sense, the message of the mayors forum was cities are on the rise as economic centers, centers of innovation and centers of learning — what we have chosen to call “cities of opportunity” — and that cities are replacing individual states and nations as the places in which “real change is taking place.”

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to attending the various “dialogues” that focused on city resiliency and financing, the trip also would have been worth it. For here the conversations focused on how to finance cities, and how to build cities that can respond to and come back from natural and man-made disasters, but not just for the benefit of the few, but in a way that promotes inclusion and social equity.

Though the solutions that were offered are costly, what was clear is that to do nothing would be even more costly. And though it is much easier to make decisions from the top down, or to make investments that benefit the wealthiest residents, for a city to thrive and grow, every resident must be included in the decision making process, regardless of their income or social standing, and every citizen must be viewed as a likely beneficiary of the investments made.

As Michael Cohen, a professor at the New School (New York) said, it is no longer feasible to operate the way Buenos Aires and New York City have operated until now, where 60 percent of the expenditures benefit the wealthiest 11 percent of the population. “If our cities are to be financially sustainable we must find ways to effectively leverage our resources to the benefit of all.”

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to hearing Joseph Stiglitz, the Columbia University economics professor and Nobel laureate, speak passionately about the need for national and local governments to take meaningful steps to end inequality and create opportunity through investments in education, job creation and small business, the trip would have been worth it. Had it been limited to hearing Leon Krier, the famous and highly controversial architect, urban planner and architectural theorist, the trip would have been worth it. His desire to create urban environments that are inclusive but limited in size, and therefore more humane in scale, rang true as we sat in the midst of a city whose one-time modest scale has given way to skyscrapers as far as the eye can see.

Finally, had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to visiting the exhibit hall and witnessing what nations and cities around the world are doing to address inequality and create cities of opportunity – from Barcelona to Jerusalem, Guangzhou to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires to Paris – the trip would have been worth it.

But in fact, this trip to the World Urban Forum 7 and Medellin, Colombia, was worth it for reasons that transcended each of its parts. It was a place for people from around the world to exchange ideas and learn from one another. It was a place where creativity was acknowledged and innovation rewarded. It was a place where one’s status as part of the developed or developing worlds did not seem to matter – everyone had something important to offer.

And it was a place that confirmed what we at the National League of Cities have long stated: cities are the laboratories of innovation and creativity, and the solutions to the world’s urban settlement problems will not happen because of national government. Rather, the solutions will emerge at the local level through the commitment of mayors and other local officials, private sector leaders who share the goal of creating “cities of opportunity,” as well as foundations, non-governmental organizations and universities.

This conference left no doubt: if those who live and work in cities are able to come together to create inclusive, resilient and financially sustainable cities, then the urban future is a very bright one, indeed.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

WUF7: City Resiliency — Facing the Reality of Natural and Man Made Disasters

This is the sixth post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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Throughout the week long meeting of the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia, there was clear agreement:

Our climate is changing, temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising, droughts are worsening, storms are becoming more violent, fires are larger and more expansive, the interface between urban and rural areas seems to be disappearing, allowing diseases to spread to places where they once never existed, and other natural disasters like earthquakes are impacting more and more people.

Furthermore, as the world’s population becomes increasingly urban, as human settlements occupy more and more available land, natural and man made disasters are becoming more consequential.

But there was also agreement that population and density alone are not the reasons that natural and man made disasters are becoming more consequential. Our cities are becoming more dependent on technology to work; the infrastructures of our cities are becoming more complex; individually and collectively we are becoming more dependent on mass services for survival. If our cities are to continue to grow and become places of opportunity, they must be able to respond to the impacts of environmental and other changes, and resilient not just for some, but for all regardless of their economic or social position.

On the last day of WUF7 this message was driven home again and again in a dialogue that included Joan Clos, director of the World Urban Forum; Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation; Luz Helena Sarmiento Villamizar, Colombia’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development and others intimately involved in addressing urban resiliency.

Joan Clos said that “we must create a new system of organization because of the limitations of available land. The more land we occupy the more problematic is our growth, especially if we wish to be resilient.”

Judith Rodin said that everything we do in cities must be done through the lens of resiliency so that our cities and the people who live there can adapt, survive, respond and grow no matter what the shock, and do so without regard to the economic or social position of the city or its residents. She added, “Never before has humanity faced such a threat as it does today. The sheer number of people at risk at any one time is unprecedented.”

There was also agreement that to do so takes money and innovation, and requires engaging all members of society while developing strong partnerships between the public and private sectors. And lest we think the cost is too great, the Rockefeller Foundation’s research shows that every dollar invested will save $15 in future losses. “The upfront costs are huge, but the cost of doing nothing is far greater. For example, the World Bank has shown that right now 25 percent of the businesses that fail after a disruptive event never reopen. That is too high a cost.”

What then is a resilient city? Luz Helena Sarmiento Villamizar put it this way: It is one in which the risks from climate change are mitigated, the relationship between sustainable and urban development are understood, and are done so understanding that the challenge of creating an equitable city must be the defining lens.

Therefore, it is not enough to ensure that the wealthiest parts of a city come back to life; or that the downtown business district is protected. It requires that every resident, every neighborhood, every community and ultimately the entire city come together to respond to a natural or man made crisis.

“In Colombia it means that we cannot forget that poor people are likely to be the most vulnerable. If we are to meet their needs we must include them in the resiliency planning and development process, since they are the most vulnerable economically and socially,” said Villamizar.

Kathrine Vines, director of the climate change risk assessment network of C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a non-governmental organization working with 66 cities around the world to mitigate the effects of climate change, reiterated this point. “We must ensure that each city’s residents, economies, etc., can respond to the undeniable stress of climate change since cities are the first place citizens go to manage risks of climate impacts,” Vines said.

Stefan Denig, vice president of Siemens Sustainable Cities Program said “we must not forget that cities are at incredible risk of huge catastrophes. London has built barriers to the Thames. In the first 30 years the barriers were only raised twice; in the last decade they have been raised 40 times. It is likely that New York City will experience a disruptive weather event every three years.”

Denig added, “if New York City failed to move toward a more resilient city, it would lose $3 billion over the next 20 years. If it only responded with protection it would still lose money over the next 20 years. But if it moved toward resiliency, investing the same $3 billion over the next 12 years would save the city about $6 billion over 20 years.”

So what then was the lesson of this dialogue, one that also included the mayors of Lampa, and Quillota, Chile, both of which in the last ten years experienced an 8.9 earthquake, a tsunami on the nearby coast, and serious flooding; a council member from Toronto, which has begun to experience devastating winters due to a shift in the jet stream; and a representative from the World Bank who underscored the financial problems facing any efforts to create resilient cities? That time is rapidly running out to create resilient cities that can respond to and recover from the ongoing changes in climate, and the increasing urbanization of the planet, both of which are conspiring to increase the likelihood of experiencing catastrophic events. To do otherwise, is to live in a constant state of denial that can only result in catastrophic outcomes.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

AFF Transportation Bonds Support Infrastructure, Jobs

According to estimates from the Federal Highway Administration, local governments invested $53 billion in highway programs raised from local revenue sources, yet that amount does not come close to meeting the needs for investment in roads, transit, bridges, waterways and airports.

While Congress debates the renewal of a national surface transportation program and how to pay for it, local leaders continue to find ways to begin to meet the funding gap. The federal-local partnership is vital to local initiatives and provide local governments with new financing tools.

Among the most effective reforms included in the last surface transportation bill – MAP-21 – was a dramatic increase in funding for a low-interest federal financing tool known as the “Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act” (TIFIA) program. President Obama requested that TIFIA funding be expanded to $1 billion in FY 2015 so the program can continue to successfully bolster the financial plans for a number of major highway and transit projects across the United States.

Projects benefitting from TIFIA funding have included Light rail Los Angeles, the Goethals Bridge between New Jersey and New York and public transit in Dallas.

Proponents of a new class of qualified tax credit bonds, called “America Fast Forward” (AFF) Transportation Bonds would build on an initiative already receiving federal credit support. These qualified tax credit bonds are taxable rate bonds issued by state, local or other eligible issuers where the federal government subsidizes most or all of the interest through granting investors annual tax credits in lieu of cash interest payments from the borrower. To date, Congress has authorized qualified tax credit bond programs totaling in excess of $36 billion for forestry conservation, renewable energy projects, energy conservation, qualified zone academies and new school construction.

According to supporters, AFF Transportation Bonds would represent a sixth class of such bonds, targeted at surface transportation capital projects. If enacted into law, AFF bonds will provide more than $45 billion in bond capacity for major transportation infrastructure projects and result in the creation of more than 500,000 jobs for skilled American workers. In Los Angeles, which is advancing a number of projects with significant TIFIA loans, the addition of AFF Transportation Bonds would permit the accelerated construction of more than $15 billion in infrastructure projects. Should AFF Transportation Bonds be included in the next surface transportation bill, the success enjoyed by Los Angeles can be replicated by cities and transportation agencies across the United States.

Maryland Congressman John Delaney has amassed strong support in the House and Senate for the Partnership to Build America Act (H.R. 2084 and S. 1957). Leadership by Rep. Delaney and Sens. Bennet and Blunt would create an American infrastructure fund that would act like a bond insurer or bank for state and local governments to build transportation, energy, water, communication and educational infrastructure. Financed by $50 billion in private bonds, the AIF could finance $2 trillion worth of infrastructure over 50 years, according to sponsors.

Communities also are developing new approaches to tolling as a way to find new revenue. A regional consortium in Austin experienced initial community resistance but eventually found that congestion pricing and enhancements such as bicycle and pedestrian walkways will increased mobility. The addition of these features and new roadways helped the region find the best ways to reduce congestion and serve the community while supporting the local economy.

All these worthy initiatives will help cities build vital infrastructure that finances economic growth, creates jobs and moves people and goods for vibrant communities.

Investment in Nation’s Infrastructure is Economic Lifeline

President Obama used the backdrop of the historic Union Depot Station in Saint Paul, Minn. to announce another round of federal TIGER grants – the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery – competitive grant program that has provided 270 communities with an opportunity to make strategic multimodal transportation investments since its inception five years ago. The $600 million in TIGER grants and the president’s proposal for a four year transportation authorization program to replace the current MAP-21 which expires this fall. 

As a new intermodal hub for Saint Paul, the station will connect the Central Corridor Light Rail, Amtrak passenger service, local transit and intercity bus services and a bicycle center. The new light rail line and the station already have generated new housing, retail development, new jobs and increased economic growth. Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, NLC’s President, told Congress in December that the federal support for the new rail line has generated more than $1.2 billion worth of investment in new housing and employment opportunities within the 18 station areas along the 11-mile route. Sixteen colleges, university and hospitals within blocks of the new line employ 67,000 people and are working together to strengthen the neighborhoods.

Similar stories in Normal, Ill. and Atlanta, Ga. demonstrate the power of strategic federal transportation investments. City leaders in Normal sought to bring back the city’s downtown but a TIGER grant helped them realize their plan, as Mayor Chris Koos told a Capitol Hill audience this week at an event sponsored by Transportation for America. With a new quarter percent sales tax, a four-percent hotel tax, and a TIF district, the city was able to invest in creating a welcoming place for community members to gather, eat and shop. Private investment followed with new shops and restaurants and plans for additional mixed-use office buildings and condos are being planned.

In Atlanta, Ga., the Atlanta BeltLine is developing a network of public parks, housing, retail and multi-use trails linked to transit along a 22-mile rail corridor. Funded by a Tax Allocation District (TAD), the project covers more than 6,500 acres of the city. Housing, jobs and new businesses continue to be established near the corridor including $400 million in new private real estate development has been invested within a block of the Historic Fourth Ward Park borders, and $775 million in new development has been invested within a half mile of the Eastside Trail. The $25 million federal investment, including an $18 million TIGER grant, continues to reap economic benefits for Atlanta, the region and the nation.

Against the backdrop of federal investment in transportation and its capacity to generate economic benefits, the president offered a new four-year proposal to fund federal transportation investments. Chairman Bill Shuster convened a roundtable to discuss the future of the federal transportation program and how to pay for it. With funding almost depleted, the president is proposing a $302 billion, four year transportation authorization. The current program expires on September 30 and funding from the federal gas tax is projected to run out before then. House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp also unveiled a tax reform proposal that includes $126.5 billion to replenish the Highway Trust Fund.

In a statement, Chairman Shuster said, “I am committed to moving forward with fiscally responsible transportation solutions to promote competitiveness and economic growth, reform programs and focus our resources where they are needed most. Chairman Camp and President Obama have presented proposals that I hope will bring increased focus to the challenges facing the Highway Trust Fund and the importance of the federal role in our national transportation system.”

The national transportation network is a lifeline for our nation’s economy. The federal partnership to maintain that investment means jobs and economic growth. Finding a comprehensive funding solution will allow local leaders to make the long-term investments and planning decisions their communities need.

Resilient Infrastructure and Energy Savings to be Focus of 3rd Annual National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, April 1-30

This post was written by Steve Creech, Executive Director of the Wyland Foundation.

In 2013, Mayor Hancock and the City of Denver, Colo. are recognized for their water conservation efforts.

In 2013, Mayor Hancock and the City of Denver, Colo. are recognized for their water conservation efforts.

The facts about water shortages are indisputable. Yet, by and large, we tend to think of these shortages as temporary problems, without giving thought to the fact that a changing climate, growing populations, an aging water delivery infrastructure and increasing demands for a finite resource now requires a drastic change in how we consume water. The annual National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, April 1-30, was created to promote a long-lasting mindset of water conservation across a broad swath of our population. Now in its third year, the challenge is widely recognized as one of the most engaging, zero-cost outreach tools especially designed for cities and water utilities to encourage conservation in the United States.

At its most basic level, the challenge asks residents to take a series of informative, easy to use pledges online to conserve water, energy and other natural resources on behalf of their city. Cities with the highest percentage of residents who take on the challenge in their population category win eco-friendly prizes for their residents. Past participating cities have included Atlanta, San Francisco, Tucson, Los Angeles, Washington, Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles.

The approach is designed to reward residents for positive conservation behavior, provide immediate feedback with real time results that can be measured against neighboring cities, set achievable goals and put a spotlight on public role models to encourage behavioral change.

A mobile learning center is used to educate residents on the importance of water conservation.

A mobile learning center is used to educate residents on the importance of water conservation.

The pledges that consumers make may seem simple, yet they have been carefully designed to harness four key drivers and result in the following benefits:

  • Save costs for consumers
  • Save infrastructure and operating costs for cities
  • Promote drought resiliency
  • Protect watersheds and ecosystems
The Wyland Foundation assists cities with promotional materials to help spread the word.

The Wyland Foundation assists cities with promotional materials to help spread the word.

Elected officials are encouraged to use their leadership position to actively inspire residents to make pledges and support their city’s conservation efforts. Officials who add their name to the online endorsement page receive a comprehensive toolkit with resources including animated broadcast-ready PSA’s, graphics and blogs. Past mayors have held kickoff events, pledge drives at local libraries, created their own videos to display on their city’s website, sent utility bill stuffers, set up electronic road signs to encourage residents to take on the challenge and asked neighboring cities to participate. The challenge supplements the city’s efforts with a national public service advertising campaign.

Americans use over 150 trillion gallons of water a year in total. Moreover, according to the River Network, the U.S. consumes about 13 percent of its energy exclusively for water-related purposes, including moving, heating and treating water. Clearly, how we use this resource is having a greater and greater impact on our economy and our future quality of life. But shifting attitudes takes time, cooperation and wide recognition that a conservation mindset is one of the best, most powerful tools available to ensure the future availability of this indispensable limited resource. The National Mayor’s Challenge For Water Conservation offers another way for cities to keep this important issue top of mind.

The 3rd Annual National Mayor’s Challenge is presented nationally by the Wyland Foundation and Toyota, in association with the National League of Cities, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service, the Toro Company, Bytelaunch Inc., Wondergrove Kids, WaterSmart Software. Learn more about the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation.

NLC Joins “Rails-to-Trails” Supreme Court Brief

Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Perhaps your city is fortunate and has extensive biking and recreational trails.  If so, have you ever wondered, where do bike paths come from? Many bike paths in the country come from abandoned railroad land grants or right-of-way grants and have been converted from “Rails-to-Trails.”  Who is often responsible for converting and maintaining these trails?  Cities, of course!

Depending on how the Supreme Court rules, future trails could be in jeopardy.

In Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States the Court will decide who owns an abandoned federally granted railroad right-of-way:  the United States or the land owner whose property the right-of-way runs through.  The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case supporting the United States. NLC has signed onto the brief.

In 1908, the United States granted the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak and Pacific Railroad Company a right-of-way to build a railroad over public land pursuant to the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875.  In 1976, the predecessor to the Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust bought land in Wyoming surrounding part of this railroad right-of-way.  In 2004, the railroad abandoned the right-of-way.  The Trust argued that it owns the abandoned right-of-way.  The Tenth Circuit disagreed. concluding that a number of federal statutes provide that the United States retains a “reversionary interest” in General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875 rights-of-way.

If the Supreme Court agrees with the Tenth Circuit, state and local governments will benefit.  A federal statute, if applicable, grants the United States title to abandoned railroad rights-of-way unless a “public highway” is established on the right-of-way within one year of abandonment.  Public highways include recreational trails.

The SLLC amicus brief argues that state and local governments have long relied on the federal statutes relevant to this case to build public highways in abandoned railroad rights-of-way.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Counties, the International City/County Management Association, the International Municipal Lawyers Association, and the American Planning Association also signed onto the SLLC’s brief.

Oral argument has been scheduled for January 14.  The Supreme Court will issue an opinion in this case by June 30, 2014.

Cities lead, but cannot go it alone

An extended conversation with NLC President Chris Coleman. Listen to an abbreviated podcast of this interview on NLC’s Sound Cloud account.

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As the end of the year approaches, top 100 lists, year-in-reviews and “person of the year” recognitions are beginning to make their rounds. What are the year’s biggest themes in politics, culture and entertainment? How about for cities? Despite some notable challenges in cities across the country, 2013 has been a year marked by a gradually improving economy, improving city fiscal conditions and a sense that people are “rediscovering” cities and all they have to offer.

I was pleased to recently have a conversation about these themes with NLC President Chris Coleman, mayor, St. Paul, Minnesota. His experience as a mayor during some of the country’s most challenging times provides a unique perspective on the state and future of American cities. Below is the discussion we had on December 13, 2013.

As we’ve recently highlighted in our 10 Critical Imperatives Facing Cities report, cities are facing challenges – many of which are nationwide issues. In your perspective, what should be the role of cities in tackling some of our country’s toughest challenges, such as access to higher education, immigration and aging infrastructure?

Cities don’t have the luxury of not tackling every issue, because every issue is going to affect their community. So whether or not they’re the primary lead on an issue such as higher education or even primary education, cities have to play a role. We have to get our kids ready for college, we have to make sure they’re successful in kindergarten through 12th grade and we have to understand the relationship between what’s happening in the classroom and what’s happening in the rest of the community. Whether you’re a mayor who has mayoral control over the school district or a mayor, such as me, who plays a significant role in the education process – that’s a critical issue evolving even more as an essential role of the city than it historically has been.

Cities don’t have the luxury of not tackling every issue, because every issue is going to affect their community.

But for instance, you can say veterans issues are a federal issue, but the veterans are living in our communities – and too often they are living on our streets. Fiscal stability – obviously we are primarily in charge of our own destiny, but many of our resources are dependent on state and federal resources that are beyond our direct control. Every community is going to have a little different set of priorities within these 10 critical imperatives we’ve described, and may have some things that were not necessarily  identified as a top 10 issue. And there are going to be issues that may be best served by the federal government or the state government or the county government – but regardless of the issue, cities have a stake and an important role to play in creating solutions.

In our work at NLC, we’ve witnessed the powerful role of the mayor to act as a convener or an agenda setter. In these roles, are mayors able to push forward these “national” or “state” issues at the local level?

The strongest power we have is to set the table. When you do that and bring the right people into the room, solutions can be found to our challenges. I liken how we approach education to how we approach emergency management, which is no one department has to do everything or no one person has to do everything but when you’re in a room and you have a situation within your community, you say, ‘Okay fire chief, can you bring resources to bear over here?’ You’ll ask your police obviously to have their deployment set and you also ask your parks department what role they can play. You ask your public works department, ‘I need 5 trucks to block off this intersection,’ – or whatever it is.

In education, I view what we’re doing as convening an emergency operation center for our children. So we have the Mayor’s Education Leadership Team (MELT) in St. Paul, which has the superintendent, county board members, school board members, city councilmembers, service providers and philanthropic partners to say, ‘Okay, what do we need to do, is this covered, who knows about this issue?’ When you bring people together and do it in a way to direct it toward finding solutions – you can find those solutions.

We’ve increasingly seen city leadership recognized on issues such as education and veteran homelessness in the media. But at the same time, we see stories about bankruptcy, urban poverty and violence dominating news headlines. In your experience as mayor and as an NLC officer, how are cities faring in the current political and economic environment?

I’ve been mayor for eight years, about to go into my third term. In a lot of ways I’ve presided over some of the worst times, certainly economically, over these last eight years, which have been very difficult for the country and for our cities. I’ve also been fortunate to be mayor at a time when people are really rediscovering cities and deciding you know what, ‘I don’t want to live in an isolated enclave somewhere, I want to live where there is access to transportation, I want to live where I can walk to a restaurant, I want to live where it’s a five-minute commute to work rather than a two-hour commute.’ The vibrancy that cities provide, all the options – what used to be considered annoying challenges are now exciting opportunities.

Even in the midst of one of our most troubled cities we see some real hope and opportunity.

So I think there are struggles no doubt – you see the fiscal condition of Detroit – but also if you go to Detroit you see the regrowth of the core of downtown. Even in the midst of one of our most troubled cities we see some real hope and opportunity. I think one of the real challenges we’re going to face though, is to make sure that hope and opportunity is for all. We have to make sure those opportunities are available and those pathways are open for all.

What steps can cities take to create those  opportunities to make their communities more vibrant?

What I think is interesting is that while cities are all different, there are some common threads that we can use to all learn from each other. We’ve started competing in a positive way to be the greenest city, or smartest city, or to be the most technically savvy, connected city. St. Paul was designated – our 55101 zip code – the center of the hipster universe. And I think that’s a good thing. So other cities are asking, ‘Why does St. Paul have the hippest zip code in the country – and why don’t we?’ Cities are competing for talent from across the globe – so how do we attract 20-somethings that are coming out of the best colleges and universities that have enormous sets of skills. How do we make sure we have a welcoming place for them?

I look at Denver, I look at Salt Lake City, I look at cities that are doing massive investments in transportation and think, we have got to move faster on this one because this is what people are looking for when making decisions on where to live. We still have some huge challenges but I think that the renewed energy and vitality of cities across the country is truly amazing and provides city leaders with great new opportunities to make their cities better.

As you look at the challenges and opportunities that face cities, in your year as NLC President, what are some of the things you would like to accomplish?

There are a few things.  First of all, just from the education piece – I came to the National League of Cities through the Institute for Youth, Education and Families – that’s how I did a real deep dive into the organization. They gave us technical assistance in building out an out-of-school time network we call “Sprockets” that provides continued learning opportunities for children during afterschool, weekends, and summer. Those are the technical skills and activities we can help cities develop at NLC. NLC is also working on a new partnership with the Department of Education to really look at some early learning and college readiness pathways for cities. That, I think, is really exciting. So I want to make sure we solidify NLC’s role in supporting cities in their education efforts.

Another important issue is resilient cities, given the already dramatic changes we’ve seen with severe weather events and the impacts of climate change. We saw all this in Northern Colorado, in Boulder and some of the other cities around Boulder that sustained some tremendous damage as a result of the heaviest rainfalls they’ve ever seen. If that was an isolated incident perhaps you’d say, ‘Well these things happen.’ But when you see these things happen time after time after time again – the Tornado in Joplin, Missouri that Mayor Melodee Colbert Kean faced in 2011, the effects of Hurricane Sandy – you can go across the country and see reports of these extreme weather circumstances happening if not every day, then every week.

I don’t think any of us recognized or realized how quickly the impacts of climate change were going to start affecting our cities.

So we’re going to have to figure out two things: first of all, how do we help our cities meet some emission reduction targets? The Obama Administration has been helpful in providing some energy efficient block grants and some other tools that we have used to green our buildings to reduce our energy consumption – those things we’re going to have to continue. But we’re also starting to understand that cities are going to have to figure out: ‘Do we have capacity in our sewer systems to handle what used to be 500 year floods that are now happening every 7-10 years? Do we have capacity to respond to gigantic straight line winds, tornadoes, or any number of things?

When I first came into office, the grave concern we were looking at was a pandemic. That is still a real possibility and we are set up to respond to that, but I don’t think any of us recognized or realized how quickly the impacts of climate change were going to start affecting our cities. We, as the National League of Cities really have to be a leader in that conversation, both on the reduction and the response side of it.

You recently testified on the importance of federal investment in transportation, touching on how you’ve benefited from being mayor of a city where all partners “rolled up their sleeves and got to work on building the infrastructure of a strong city and region.”  What type of support do cities and their partners need from the federal government to make their communities better?

First of all, city leaders have to understand what the real threats to their community are – and the real threats are not the next town over or upstate or downstate. The threats that we face in terms of the future vitality of U.S. cities are cities across the globe that are growing rapidly, where they are attracting talent from across the world. The overwhelming evidence is that people coming out of college or universities right now are saying, ‘I’m going to pick where I want to live first and then what am I going to do.

And so whether you’re a city of 50,000 or a city of a couple million, you have to figure out what are you going to do to make your community attractive to folks who have a lot of options. Even before I was mayor, I looked at Austin, Texas and their success. They had a lot of pieces that we had in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But they also had a thriving cultural scene – there was a “there” there. Look at Nashville right now – Nashville is going gangbusters.

It’s not because they don’t have challenges. Mayor Dean and Councilmember Steine in Nashville are doing incredible work on the education front and they’ve been a model for a lot of the stuff we’re doing. But they have a city that is becoming a huge draw for people across the country, if not the globe. So my advice to cities is to identify the three or four things they’re going to do and do them well to position themselves in  a 21st century economy, then look to others to support that.

The problem is that too many people in Washington see cities as here with an open hand saying give us money, without a true understanding that as our cities go, so goes our country.

The reason I was testifying on the New Starts program, the reason why that was so important was because I’ve seen firsthand the impact of an investment in transportation in the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis – we’re six months out before the Central Corridor light rail line carries its first fare-paying passenger, and yet we’ve already seen $1.2 billion worth of investment. We have 7,500 units of housing underway or in planning along that line. We’ve seen businesses along University Avenue, where the line runs, that have been there for years, now reinvesting in their businesses and cleaning them up and preparing for the influx of customers.

So an area that has been subject to disinvestment since the freeway went through in the mid-60s is now the epicenter of investment in the Twin Cities. And so if you have the partnership with the federal government to support some of those things, then our cities will be vibrant. The problem is that too many people in Washington see cities as here with an open hand saying give us money, without a true understanding that as our cities go so goes our country. And if they understood that then they would be more willing to invest in our communities.

It seems vital to have a feedback loop to the policymakers in Washington because the leaders in our cities understand their communities best – they understand the threats, the challenges, and the opportunities. As you mentioned, we have seen how previous infrastructure projects have led to disinvestment– but you’re doing it differently. Your city is getting community input and the federal government is supporting that process.

A couple things happened in the construction of the Central Corridor, what is now called the Green Line. We were able to change the dynamic from D.C. saying here is how you’re going to build your line, to DC saying what do you need to make the line successful? That was a fundamental shift. The community fought for three additional stops that would serve the most transit dependent members along the line. It wasn’t until former Transportation Secretary LaHood and the Obama Administration said, oh this doesn’t make sense – it makes sense from a Washington perspective – but I understand now how it doesn’t make sense from a St Paul perspective so let’s make a change there.

The value of this investment isn’t just how quickly you can move people through an area – it’s how you can get people to invest in an area. That’s the critical piece.

The New Starts criteria that says were not going to just look at pure numbers and how fast you can move people from point A to point B, we’re going to ask how does this help green development, how does this help create economic opportunities, how does this help serve poor and disenfranchised communities. We still need a line that moves people from point A to point B and do it in an efficient time frame, but when you understand the value of this investment isn’t just how quickly you can move people through an area – it’s how you can get people to invest in an area. That’s the critical piece.

Bruce Katz has notably argued that we will increasingly see cities leading what he calls a “metropolitan revolution.” What are your thoughts on the future of cities? And what do you envision NLC’s role in helping to create that vision?

Bruce Katz and the folks at the Brookings Institution have done an amazing job of capturing in some ways and spearheading in others the kind of new look at cities – understanding that more than 75 percent of our nation’s economic output is coming out of cities, 80 percent of people are living in cities. That these global centers are not going through the federal government, but past the federal government to do direct city to city exchange.

It is a revolution and it’s a revolution mainly because it seems like we are going back to century old city states where the cities were the power. I don’t think that’s a great model in the sense that I hope Washington, D.C. will continue to make themselves relevant – but if they’re not going to make themselves relevant then cities aren’t going to stop moving forward.

This is one of the most interesting times in decades if not centuries for cities. What is happening here and understanding why cities existed in the first place, and why they matter, is really coming to the forefront as federal governments are becoming more and more stagnated. The creativity that occurs because three people are sitting at a coffee shop exchanging ideas, and how we exchange ideas with technology – there’s such an amazing revolution in terms of how people are reacting and exchanging ideas and creating things at a speed that we haven’t seen before. It’s an exciting time for cities. And I think NLC will be in the thick of it.

Fair Housing Act Case Settles…Again

Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

For the second time in two years, the parties have settled a dispute before the Supreme Court over whether the 1968 Fair Housing Act (FHA) allows plaintiffs to bring disparate impact claims.  These claims are brought when actions are perceived to have a discriminatory effect on specific groups, either as an intended or unintended consequence. Local governments across the country have been subject to these claims.

The FHA makes it unlawful to refuse to sell or rent a property to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.  The question presented in Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action v. Township of Mount Holly, which has now been removed from the Supreme Court’s December docket due to the settlement, was whether a policy or action that disproportionately affects a protected class of citizens but does not intentionally discriminate on the basis of race or other factors can give rise to an FHA claim.

In this case, residents sued the Township of Mount Holly, NJ over a plan to redevelop a low-income minority neighborhood on the basis that it violated the FHA, because the redevelopment would disproportionately impact the township’s minority population.

All of the federal circuit courts have ruled that disparate impact claims are recognized under the FHA, and this year the Department of Housing and Urban Development adopted final rules stating the same. The USA Today reports that the financial services industry has vowed to find another case to bring to the Supreme Court — one that won’t settle.

It is widely speculated that the current Supreme Court would hold that disparate impact claims cannot be brought under the FHA.

The International Municipal Lawyers Association filed a brief on behalf of the Township.

Fresno Leverages TIGER Grants for Complete Streets Planning

This is the second in a series of blogs that will explore the impact TIGER grants have on local communities by helping them better leverage financing options, meet transportation safety goals, and increase overall quality of life by introducing alternative modes of transportation.  Click here for the first blog, which explores Seattle’s Mercer Corridor Project.

According to the Best Complete Streets Policies of 2012 report, complete streets policies lay out a community’s plan to design and maintain streets so they are safe for users of all ages and abilities, and can accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, public transit users, motorists and freight vehicles.

Typically, complete streets initiatives are developed to ensure that pedestrian and bicycle options as well as other alternatives to the personal vehicle are included in in an area’s transportation planning. In the case of Fresno, CA’s Fulton Mall Reconstruction however, the city sought to do the opposite – reintroduce car lanes into an area that had been without them since the 1960s.

Fresno’s 18-square-block downtown area is home to the city’s historic main street area, but its disconnected design has made it difficult for people to easily navigate the area.  Fresno is using TIGER funds  to reintroduce vehicle traffic lanes while improving the bicycle and pedestrian facilities in the area.  Business leaders and city planners believe that reintroducing driving capacity will help increase access and visibility to businesses in the mall, thereby helping improve the economic potential of the downtown area.

In Fresno’s 2013 TIGER grant application, they cited a statistic from a national survey which found that 90 percent of downtowns with pedestrian malls become more successful when the reopened the malls to vehicle traffic.  This highlights the importance of having  multimodal transportation options in downtown areas.

This is an extremely important project not only for the city but also for the region.  Fresno is being considered for a high-speed rail stop by the California High Speed Rail Authority, so the more the city can to do increase its economic competitiveness and attractiveness, the greater impact the investment will have for the state.  Fresno Mayor Ashely Swearengin noted that “This grant is a significant moment in Fresno’s history…The message that Secretary Foxx and the federal government are sending to us today is loud and clear: They believe in downtown Fresno, and they believe it will be the vibrant economic center for the entire region.  Our opportunity now is to carry this momentum forward to realize that vision.”

The total cost of the project is $20 million and the city’s $16 million TIGER grant will help fund a large portion of it.  The state and Fresno County will contribute other financial resources, leaving the city’s budget largely untouched for this project.

For more information on Fresno’s Fulton Mall Reconstruction and other TIGER grant programs, register to attend NLC’s Congress of Cities conference in Seattle, WA, Nov 13-16, 2013.  The conference will feature solutions to local challenges in the areas of infrastructure development and investment, environmental sustainability, and economic development.  And for more information in complete streets initiatives, please visit NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute.

About the TIGER Grants
In 2009, Congress dedicated $1.5 million for the first round of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grant program which was created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).  The overwhelming popularity of the TIGER grant program has sustained this resource for local governments for five years and counting now.

Through the program, the U.S. Department of Transportation provides competitive grants to local governments to invest in a variety of transportation initiatives that meet community needs while contributing to national transportation goals.

JuliaPulidindi
About the author
: Julia Pulidindi is a Senior Associate for Infrastructure at the National League of Cities (NLC). Her work focuses on identifying local challenges and solutions to transportation and telecommunications infrastructure issues.  Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaPulidindi.