Darree Sicher has worked tirelessly in relief efforts, as Vice-President of The Kutztown Democratic Club and the battles to stop the encroaching giant Walmart. We are proud to name her as CS2′s third unsung hero.
CS2: Hi Darree. Can you tell me what school you went to and when you graduated?
Darree: Hi. I graduated in 1979 from Brandywine High School in Topton, PA.
CS2: How did you become interested in politics and changing the political system?
Darree: I was always involved in making noise. My parents were very involved in the Civil Rights movement. I was involved in that and in various things like disaster relief. But I wasn’t involved in actual politics until Bush came along. So I began to find out about it. I went to a gathering of folks who were making signs to protest Bush coming to Kutztown. Around that scenario there was discussion about starting a Democratic club in Kutztown. Linda Wood was organizing this club around protesting Bush’s visit and that’s when I got involved in the political end of things. Up until that I wasn’t really aligned with a political party.
CS2: So before that your involvement was mostly non-political?
Darree: Well as I said, I grew up with the Civil Rights Movement. My parents were involved in miner strikes. They were involved in anti-war rallies. I remember, being young, them getting arrested in Washington, D.C. My aunt had to watch us for three days until my parents got out of jail. My family was very involved in that kind of thing. My grandfather, who had a bookstore in Philadelphia, was involved with fighting book banning in the 1960′s. Kurt Vonnegut had a book that was supposed to get banned. The ACLU told my grandfather that if you carry the book we’ll cover your legal fees. He would put the book in the window and the police would shut him down. The ACLU would come in and defend him. My family was always involved in defending rights: freedom of speech and freedom of the press. My grandfather used to say: It’s not that I’m an activist, it’s just that I was at the wrong place at the wrong time [laughs]. I grew up with a grandfather saying you have to protect these rights. Also, I think a positive thing is growing up in a very liberal family in a conservative area. You either decide to ostracize yourself and be lonely or you decide to recognize the value in each person’s opinion. So I grew up as a minority even though I had white skin. Also, as I was growing up we did relief efforts all the time. As my children were growing we continued to be active in relief efforts. We did flood relief in the mid-west. We did tornado relief in Lyons. We’ve worked with African refugees from Sierra Leone. Things like that. So we’ve always been involved in looking at the world as a community.
CS2: Can you tell me, skipping up to the current day, the most recent thing you’ve been involved in and how did that turn out?
Darree: The most recent thing I’ve been involved in is the fight to keep a Walmart out of our community. The machinations of people who are supposed to be working for the public are really working for whoever has the bigger wallet. That’s my take on it. There was a change of zoning with a conditional use, to change what was zoned light-industrial to commercial. Our job was to prove how this would be detrimental to the community. I think we did a good job with that. We supported a pro-bono lawyer, Bob Grim, who did all the work for free. There were eight months of hearings. We brought in witnesses. The developer claimed that he didn’t know who the 207,000 square foot tenant was. It was registered in Washington as Walmart. The township still approved the change in zoning. So we became very active in fighting this zoning change to approve Walmart. So many people in the community said they don’t want it.
CS2: Some of our readers may be curious. Why would you be opposed to a Walmart moving in? What are the issues?
Darree: In fact, 50% of all Americans go to Walmart once a week which is an astronomical amount. Some of the biggest problems with Walmart are because of their vast capital. They are able to control suppliers, often by cutting quality or safety. They disallow unions and are able to keep workers wages low. Workers have unreasonable hours and minimal health care options. A constant conclusion of studies is that within five years of arrival Walmart virtually annihilates all other businesses. They say they’re bringing in jobs, but within five years for every five jobs they bring in they lose seven jobs. It’s detrimental to the individuality of a community. It boils down to an attempt to homogenize all of the country. Walmart sells more groceries than anyone else. They sell more bicycles. They sell more of everything. So when you have a Super Walmart come in, it’s like an entire town under one roof. Some people look at that as convenience, but I look around at what it’s doing to your neighborhood. The right of an individual to maintain their own business, to have the personality that their family brings to the business, and to have some control over their income should be paramount. When you lose your small businesses, you lose the people who donate to your schools for cheer-leading uniforms, or to the Boy Scouts, or to the fire company. All the things that are integral to a community become lost when that community can’t support itself. A Walmart job sending people to aisle seven is not conducive to a healthy community. My first issue is that it destroys communities. My second issue is that Walmart is the largest employer in the United States. That’s a lot of power under one roof. I look at it like the concern you would have if all radios were owned by one entity. The concern of one huge conglomerate controlling so much of our financial stability. Some of my other concerns: Walmart is the fourth largest importer of Chinese goods in the whole world–above entire countries. So every time you’re buying things made in China, you’re buying it at the cost of putting American factory workers out of work. The irony is that we’re prostituting our communities for something cheap. Rewarding people who don’t have OSHA rules to protect their workers. Or rules against lead paint in baby toys. Poisons that are illegal here are now being sold to China. We have safety and security systems to safeguard us that do increase the price but add value to our quality of life. China has very little in terms of regulations. By going to Walmart you are feeding the monster. So those are some of the basic issues.
CS2: How about the traffic issue? How would it have affected Kutztown?
Darree: The estimate from different studies is that at a minimum you get 70,000 new car trips a week. You have the car issues. You have pollution and run-off issues. It’s very short-sighted to think that every field we have in America should be paved and named some cutesy name. And then we wonder why we have run-off issues and pollution issues. By encouraging excessive development in our communities we are poisoning our environment. We are financially poisoning and we are physically poisoning and we are spiritually poisoning our communities . There is a slow awakening happening in America to these dangers. The excitement of this Walmart fight is that we won!! So we won not only against Walmart which is one of the largest conglomerates in the entire world, we also won against the Gambone Development Company which is one of the largest developers in the Philadelphia area. Maxatawny Township basically appealed our lawsuit. They said you can’t sue us. We’ll sue you. They have now signed an agreement saying they will drop it. We won against one of the meanest townships in Berks County. To me these are very powerful things to be involved in. Encouraging and leading people to be involved in their own future.
CS2: When you first got into working these Walmart-type issues and started going to township meetings, could you describe for our readers how a township committee actually functions as opposed to the ideal of how the public thinks it functions? What are the interests that are pulling at them and making them make the kinds of decisions that they make?
Darree: First of all, by Pennsylvania law, every township and municipality has to be zoned for every single land use. So Maxatawny Township has to be zoned for light industrial, commercial, high-density and low density, where does the dump go…etc. Every single township has to have that in the whole state. The only way they don’t have to is if municipalities team up together and that’s called creating a comprehensive plan. So Kutztown, as a separate borough, along with Lyons as a separate borough [both boroughs in Maxatawny Township] could team up and do a cooperative zoning. There are examples where up to five municipalities in the Pennsburg area are cooperating together. It’s possible to do that with your zoning. It’s possible to do that with your tax base. Ultimately what a township has to do is look at how they are going to pay their bills. How they’re going to pay for their road maintenance for the township roads that are not state roads. How are they going to pay for their municipal employees for cutting the weeds, plowing the roads or various other township duties. So they’re always looking at how they are going to pay their bills. In general, a housing development will cost the township somewhere in the vicinity of $3000.00 per unit. So when people think a housing development will help the tax base-it doesn’t. It actually increases your taxes. The goal of many townships then becomes to attract business and light-industrial settings to pay taxes. Ironically, farms cost the municipality very little, yet everyone seems very anxious to pave paradise to put up a parking lot. So many townships will give the big guy a tax break in order to pull him in the first place. So as far as the lay of the land, zoning is a requirement of the state. The next step is your township supervisors are elected to the position of directing how things are done in your township. Your township supervisors then appoint your zoning board and hire township solicitors and managers. So where people have the strength is who they vote in office-that’s your supervisors. Supervisors that are like-minded to you. Or at least one that is open to suggestions. Your township supervisor can then say we want a cluster of houses for zoning. So we can fulfill our requirement but still keep farmland open. Zoning can also do things like put a cap on the size of your commercial buildings, so you don’t have 200,000 square foot Walmarts. You could say we have a 100,000 square foot cap on any new development. Those are ways that townships can control what’s going to happen. They can’t do that after the fact. They can’t change their zoning after someone has put an offer in on a property. They can only do it before it happens. So for instance now that this Walmart thing is dead this would be a good time to put in caps on commercial development. They can do things like if parcels larger than 100 acres is going to be developed then you have to donate 30% to a conservation group for farmland preservation. So there are creative ways to make this work. That’s kind of the skeleton of how townships work. Individuals have the power to push the goals of their community.
CS2: Talk of township supervisors leads me to a very interesting article that you wrote in CS2 last month that created lots of reaction. Can you tell me about your latest campaign and whether it was successful or not?
Darree: In the midst of the Walmart battle which went on for eight months of hearings with 100-300 people at every meeting, (Which is virtually unheard of), we found a large interest and passion in the community. I constantly had people coming up to me and saying things like: they wouldn’t change the zoning for me, why did they change it for the big guy? Not only was I approached by groups like the Kutztown Area Democratic Club to try and stop this Walmart, I also spoke with the Sierra Club and other groups and individuals including my own children who were heartbroken that this was the beginning of the end for our community. Through eight months of hearings we did a damn good job. Our emergency workers, fire and police, spoke out against it. Our school districts spoke out against it. Even though they would benefit tax wise they opposed it because they felt the influx of traffic (70,000 per week) would be detrimental to bus routes. The roads are dangerous enough as it is. The location would have required a stop light at the Kutztown on-off ramp. We had all kinds of perspectives presented to show what a negative impact this would be. We had historical perspectives. We presented all kinds of perspectives on potential problems. In light of all this evidence the township supervisors didn’t ask one single question in eight months of hearings. Not one single question. Then they approved it. They knew this was going to be a problem because they had the police there the night they approved it. If you are really doing right by the community do you need the police? Is this a Democracy? They put 99 conditions on the approval of the zoning change. This was a way for them to save face. They said we’ll allow the zoning change on the condition that you meet these criteria. Then they named 99 criteria. Ultimately the developer said that’s too strict and decided he didn’t want it. That might sound like a nice end of the story: township saves face…yakety yak. We filed an appeal saying we disagree with your findings. They filed an appeal against us saying you can’t disagree with us. The taxpayers’ money is paying for their solicitor to, for all intents and purposes, fight its own community. I don’t think this is what people pay taxes for. We had one man speak out against the Walmart and then he decided to run for township supervisor. The township supervisor is a six-year position and there are three supervisors. So every other year somebody’s position comes up. The one incumbent whose position was up had been on the board for over 30 years. The challenge for me as a registered and lifelong Democrat was that the man who had gone to bat for us and was running for the seat was a registered Republican. So the question for me was do you stick with the man who has been in office for 30 years and didn’t ask a single question and if he had done the planning and zoning properly we wouldn’t be in this position, or do you go to the person who you think is going to do a better job? I met with this man, whose name is Dave Hoffman, several times before I got involved. I ask him what I thought were relevant questions. What do you think the community needs? What does the future of the community look like to you? What are your goals for the community? I found his answers to be similar to my values on many things. I’m not married to the man. I don’t care what his personal views are. His concerns as township supervisor would be those of the township and community. I decided it was important to support the person who would do best for the community. It’s so important to get involved on the local level. If you don’t like what they’re doing you have the right and obligation to vote them out and vote in somebody who will do a better job. So I decided to get behind Dave Hoffman and support him in his bid for township supervisor. I did that on a personal level and not as the leader of a group. What I found was that many people were relieved to find someone who was leading a non-partisan effort. They were encouraging non-partisanship. I was asking people to do what’s right for the community. People aren’t dumb. They knew what was going on was not in the interest of the community. Besides the Walmart issue, the township had placed $300,000 worth of liens on five Mennonite farmers and put a gag order on them saying they weren’t allowed to discuss it. Many people are aggravated with manure spreading or roosters that crow at the crack of dawn. But the bigger picture is: Do we want farms here? Yes or No? Or do we want development? If we want farms we have to find a way to work with them. Dave was doing things like mediating between the township and the Mennonite farmers. He was defending a chicken farmer who was under attack even though they are grandfathered as a right to have the farm. If you think we should get all our food from China then we’ll have to disagree. I think we should be supporting our local farmers. Feeding ourselves, protecting ourselves financially as a community will be our salvation. So I helped Dave organizing his campaign. We got a lot of bipartisan support. People were relieved. Everybody talks about not wanting partisanship but its like saying you want to lose weight but you keep putting the chocolates in your mouth. Everybody talks bipartisan but they don’t do it. I find that when people do it they find something good and solid for the community. On November 6th Dave was voted in. A 30 year incumbent was voted out. Very exciting!
CS2: You’ve been in national campaigns with the Democratic Club, you’ve been in local campaigns with Mr. Hoffman, what’s wrong with our politics as you see it?
Darree: The bully mentality that you see in the playground. You’re either on my side or you’re not. How is this any different than when you hear Bush saying you’re either with us or you’re against us? That’s the problem with the politics. It’s a blue shirt or a red shirt. We’re not looking at the personal issues. When Lyons got hit by a tornado nobody said you don’t live in Lyons so don’t help. Nobody asked are you a Democrat or a Republican? We only let Republicans help in this town. When you see people in their humanity they’re not divided. When there’s a true humanity in people’s hearts. The problem I see with the politics is that it’s really about winning. It’s not about what’s good for the community or the country or the world. It’s my way or the highway. Where does that get you? The problem with the big picture of politics is that we’re not giving or receiving the olive branch.
CS2: Based upon the struggles you’ve been involved with recently, are you optimistic or pessimistic about an individuals ability to affect real change by participating in the political system?
Darree: I’m optimistic about the human spirit. What’s interesting is that you saw that right after 911. There’s a human spirit. I think people are compassionate. A doctor doesn’t deliver a baby only if you’re a Democrat or Republican. We have had progress in moving away from racism. We’ve had progress in moving away from our sexism as far as women winning the right to vote. Things only change when people apply their passion. Not with the sword but with the dove. I believe that the most progressive are Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Jesus. The three of them were very progressive. They weren’t exclusionary. You can call yourself progressive but if you’re still saying you’re with me or against me you’re not progressive.
CS2: I’m not going to ask you what your advice would be to the right-wingers or conservatives because we all know what we say to them and they say to us. Instead what would your advice be to your fellow progressives?
Darree: Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone. I truly know that I’ve made mistakes in my life. I’ve also made successes. Hopefully I’ve made successes out of my mistakes. Progressives should stop and think “How am I participating in this. If I didn’t pick up the mud I wouldn’t be flinging it.” It’s not out of righteousness but rather out of a real hope that the world will be getting better. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t hypocrisy -that’s all part of it.
CS2: Would it be fair to say by way of summing up that we progressives need to learn how to disagree among ourselves and still support one another?
Daree: That’s right. If we are the family of man, I challenge us to stop being a dysfunctional family. Respecting each other in spite of our follies, in spite of our sins, in spite of our pleasures. We need to be a more loving family.