Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about growth and planning in the West.
Why can't officials elected on platforms of slowing growth and preserving community character get more accomplished?
The short answer is that the sentiment that elects pro-planning candidates is not unified by much else. Environmentalists make up only a portion of the pro-planning vote, and often they aren't trusted, due to public perception about their emphasis on natural resources over the needs of working populations.
Real progress comes only by identifying and bringing together a wide constituency to create a voice that speaks solely on planning issues. Business-as-usual boosters will have a difficult time tarring a home-grown movement for having a secret mission or taking its orders from someplace else.
Here are some strategies that community-based groups can use to push public officials to take decisive action:
* Analyze and present the real costs of growth. Many studies have shown that impact fees and exactions on developments cover only a portion of what a new subdivision or mall really costs the community. Undoubtedly, the developer stands to make a bundle, but what's the balance sheet for schoolteachers or retired people?
* Apply the best natural resource and mapping technologies. Whether or not a new plan is in progress, it's well worth lobbying for state-of-the-art technologies now. Regulations that protect wildlife resources, wetlands and habitat are no better than the data that support them.
* Hire the right consultant. The selection of a consultant dominates everything that subsequently happens in a planning process. All applicants look good on paper, but what does their past work show? A pro-planning community group must know enough about alternative planning approaches to choose the right consultant. The best planning is based on carrying-capacity models that consider different population levels.
* Look closely at the biases of local counsel. Government attorneys are first and foremost interested in keeping their jurisdictions out of legal trouble. Planning runs into trouble when it even hints about affecting property rights, and attorneys - representing both the public and private sectors - weigh in early.
Beware of attorneys who have parlayed their expertise into a lucrative business representing local developers. Eventually, everyone who doesn't like a land-use plan will hint at litigation; the elected officials will slam the process into reverse if their legal advisers say there is any shaky foundation. Find experts to provide opinions supporting planning authority.
* Identify and support sustainable local economies. Typically, a community wants to grow by attracting entirely new kinds of business and industry. Sweet tax breaks and subsidies are usually aimed at outsiders. Small or struggling local businesses that have unrealized potential can be overlooked.
For instance: Dairy farmers near resort communities sell out to vacation-property development because they can't get a guaranteed price for their dairy products. But dairies could organize and launch a gourmet cheese factory that would in effect sell their milk rather than their land to the newcomers. A local pro-planning group could prepare and circulate a prospectus to potential investors.
* Keep momentum with a community roundtable. By starting an ongoing roundtable discussion that includes elected officials and business leaders and a wide spectrum from the community, a pro-planning group can show that it is positively invested in the community. A regular roundtable also encourages participants to think about the overall needs of the community.
* Pre-empt the opposition. The "planning for people" pitch from gung-ho pro-growthers and the wise-use movement appeals to working people who feel economically trapped and distrust government. Pro-planning groups need to be up-front advocates for issues like affordable housing.
The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story: