20170814 - Charlottesville City Hall Credit: Credit: Talia Wiener, Charlottesville Tomorrow

While the Charlottesville Planning Commission on Tuesday discussed a proposed citizen survey on revisions to the land-use portion of the Comprehensive Plan, its members initially concluded that they needed some outside help.

“None of us are psychologists or survey specialists or sociologists. … I’m starting to feel like we maybe need someone else’s hand and eyes on this that could craft it, to say that these are questions that came from one of our elected officials and she would like to get at these points. Help us ask them in the most appropriate language,” Commissioner Genevieve Keller said.

It turns out that Stacy Pethia, the city’s housing development specialist, is trained in evaluating survey questions. So instead, Charlottesville is utilizing her abilities.

The survey is geared toward reaching groups who usually are not participants in local land-use decisions. It will poll residents on where future development should go, whether they feel comfortable where they currently live, whether they feel respected in the city and their modes of travel.

Along with the survey, members of the Planning Commission and planning staff are plotting visits to various locations in the community, such as churches, the Charlottesville Free Clinic and The Haven.

“Meetings aren’t necessarily … the best vehicle to reach the population we feel is underrepresented,” Keller said.

“Going to The Haven, a questionnaire [probably] wouldn’t be the best thing. It would be better to just have a conversation,” she said.

Additionally, attempts for outreach will include going into communities where there has been a dearth of feedback. Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Councilor Wes Bellamy have offered to help find volunteers to assist in reaching those people.

“I really do like the idea of … outsourcing of going door-to-door. … People are going to be going to be less suspect and willing to engage if they have someone who looks like a member of their community knocking on their door,” Commissioner Hosea Mitchell said.

Keller suggested that there should be some sort of human subject certification training before those pollsters went out. The training would address ethical oversights in clinical research.

“It seems like, to be responsible, if you’re going to send out people, that they need to have something rather than just showing up.”

Along with collecting thoughts on the Comprehensive Plan, the survey also would collect some demographic information.

“How will this information that we are gathering help us shape that Comprehensive Plan better,” Chairwoman Lisa Green asked.

“What do we do with the data that may not directly coincide with how we create this land-use chapter?” Green said. “I mean, we’re not really capturing feelings on the land-use chapter.”

Commissioners also expressed concerns about asking questions about income and citizenship status.

“It would be very helpful to us, though, to understand that,” Mitchell said. “The refugee population is pretty significant in Charlottesville.”

Although the goal of the supplemental information would give better insight into the responses they receive from residents, Keller cautioned that a nuanced approach would be needed to ensure that the communities that the commission is attempting to reach are not put off by the questions.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and if you go out and ask the wrong people at the wrong place in the wrong way, then we’re back to where we were, self-perpetuating our middle-class naïveté.”

The survey is set to go out in paper and online forms later this month.

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Elliott Robinson

Elliott Robinson has spent nearly 15 years in journalism and joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its news editor in August 2018 through 2021. He is a graduate of Christopher Newport University.