Camden Totally Got Screwed (Again) Tonight

Earlier tonight, in its beautiful-but-decrepit art-deco city hall, the Camden Zoning Board of Adjustment voted to allow a methadone clinic to be built at 6th and Atlantic, in spite of boisterous, plentiful, and unanimous in-person opposition from the community. Just like always.

I am not a journalist, and this is not journalism. Some journalists have written about this already, and I’m sure more will. I’ll put some links below (and keep updating them) in case you are on a fact-finding mission, but these are just, like, my opinions, man.

So how did they do it? How did an entity that is vigorously and unanimously opposed by the community stomp in anyway and get exactly what they wanted? That’s what’s interesting to me, and while I’m no expert, this is how I think it worked, based on my 14 years of working in this city.

BABY STEPS

Tonight, attorneys for the methadone clinic and the zoning board continually dismissed community opposition by stating these concerns will be relevant “when it goes to planning” and had no bearing on tonight’s decision. Tonight’s decision, they reiterated, ONLY concerns whether a commercial business can locate itself in a light industrial zone. “You can take that up at the planning meeting” was the refrain.

Trouble is, after tonight’s approval, the planning meeting is about how high the fence is and where the bus stop will be — it will still be a methadone clinic. The community cannot come to the planning meeting and force the methadone clinic to become a fro-yo shop. They can only raise concerns about how the clinic operates. And if history is any guide, the clinic will not operate in accordance with the community’s wishes. It certainly doesn’t in its current location.

FEAR OF REPRISAL

Of the six board members at the meeting tonight, three spoke out loud during the meeting in opposition to the clinic’s moving into the neighborhood, and yet two of them either abstained from voting (1) or voted to allow it anyway (1).

Why in the hell would they do that?

Because the lawyers said you might open yourself up to lawsuits if you vote no. Because the clinic’s posse is a connected group of people who have lots of power. Because the people who run Camden were not in the room, and while we don’t know how they feel, we know the Zoning Board does not want to stick their finger in those people’s eyes.

Does the Zoning Board fear reprisal from the community? Not at all.

PREFERENCE FOR CAPITAL

In this country, in general, it is a landowner’s right to do whatever he wants with the land. That’s precisely what’s happening here. The clinic owns the lot, they want to build a clinic on it, and it’s fairly meaningless to the government whether or not the community wants it there (they do not). Sure, we have zoning regulations, but variances are easily won.

This is a pretty bedrock principle in the United States, and the only time you see it disrupted is when a richer landowner has desires that outweigh the desires of the poorer landowner (e.g., Rudy Giuliani ‘cleans up’ New York by replacing an adult bookstore with an M&M store).

Camden is full of the necessary evils of modern life in America. It smells horrible here. In our little neighborhood (less than 1 square mile!) we have a municipal waste incinerator, a sewage treatment plant, the world’s largest licorice processing plant (?!), thousands of trucks passing through each day, a port that takes in tons of green coffee, and a cement manufacturer that fills the air with dust. Why are those things able to exist? Because of our preference for capital. Why do they exist in Camden? Because bigger capital in other municipalities forced these things to Camden.

THE BIG OLE MYTH OF PARTICIPATION

On The West Wing, President Bartlet says at a town hall in Roslyn “decisions are made by those who show up.” Similarly, in his farewell address, Barack Obama said if you don’t like what you see in the country around you, “run for office.” These are nice ideas, but as a person who shows up, and as a person who has volunteered for grassroots political candidates, I have come to believe they are naive platitudes (at least in cities).

Tonight, everyone showed up in opposition to a methadone clinic at 6th and Atlantic, found the Zoning Board to be in vocal agreement, and — yet — amazingly — voted 3–2 to approve the clinic.

When civil unrest rears its handsome head, status-quo-ers often wonder “why didn’t these people avail themselves of the democratic process?” We did, and it didn’t work, so now we must gather our pitchforks.

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