Thursday, June 08, 2006

Developing a new way...Part II...continued

As promised, some thoughts on the new proposal to divide the county into ten planning districts…

I don't necessarily feel any more informed about the program than I did last night. Less tired, maybe. But I have given it more thought and based on what I've read in the Flier, the Sun and elsewhere, I feel qualified to comment on the concept, if not the specifics, which are to be determined. It's important to remember that last bit. What is being proposed, I gather, is a philosophical shift in the way we look at planning and zoning; the technical aspects of the proposal will be determined in time, following the passage of enabling legislation.

But first, some background from the Flier.

Kenneth Ulman, Guy Guzzone and Calvin Ball said they would like to scrap the county's once-a-decade comprehensive rezoning process and replace it with smaller "community planning areas" that would be considered separately.

...Under the Democrats' proposal, the council would review smaller planning areas on a rotating cycle and create a master plan to guide the development of each.

By breaking the county into portions, the council can focus more intently on each area, said Guzzone, who is running for the House of Delegates in District 13.

Guzzone said he is unsure how many planning areas would be created and how frequently each would be reviewed, adding that officials would consider using the five regions used by the county planning and zoning department: Columbia, Ellicott City, Elkridge, the western county and the southeastern county.
More details: Within each planning district, a "community-driven plan" will be developed by citizens and stakeholders. This plan would go before the Council and the Planning Board before being approved, and it would also have to adhere to the county's ten-year General Plan, last approved in 2000.

The idea for this approach probably germinated with the Town Center charrette -- as ambitious a planning process as any this county has seen (well, aside from Columbia itself, which, for the most part, left out citizens). To be sure, planning for downtown has had its share of ups and downs, but most people, myself included, are still supportive of the plan and the process. The attention paid to it and the criticism generated by it are not the product of a desire to see it flounder, but rather, they arise out of participants' desire to ensure the process is completed according to its goals and the plan is approved according to our vision.

What makes this proposal different from the charrette, however, is scale. The scale of development in Town Center -- thousands of new residential units, millions of square feet of retail and commercial -- is far more intensive than we'll see in any of these planning areas.

In addition, the size of the planning areas will be considerably larger than Town Center, where we must be dogmatically deliberate in where we place everything (living in an 850 square foot house teaches you a little something about deliberate placement). I don't mean to imply that with larger areas we can just fudge where everything goes; it's just that we have larger margins for error (and to think that any planning process is or will ever be error free is delusional).

However, I'm not here to defend the charrette and Town Center master plan. I’m here to say why I am intrigued by this new planning paradigm. And no, it's not just because I'm toeing the party line. If the Republicans come up with more than platitudes for how we improve a zoning process that most believe is broken, I'll give them a fair, objective shot at winning my support.

My support for the charrette represents de facto support for greater citizen participation in the planning process. Unfortunately, aside from the charrette, citizen participation has thus far meant showing up at zoning meetings, struggling to have your voice heard, and fighting developers, in part, because that's the way the system works.

Although what the Democrats are proposing won't make citizens and developers best friends anytime soon, and indeed may not remove the above three stages of citizen participation, but it will add something new: proaction. Currently, we're stuck in "R" (reactive-mode). We're forced to rally the troops every time an insult of a developer's plan comes down the pipeline. I guess you could read the General Plan to better anticipate what's coming, but so far that doesn't seem to make us any better prepared.

This new process, meanwhile, would engage citizens early and allow them have more input into the future of our community, on a scale and in a context that is both familiar and meaningful. Who better understands the working of a neighborhood than those that live there? Why not allow them a greater voice then in how that neighborhood should look ten years from now?
Decentralizing the planning process likely means more participants, who would also be more informed and more invested in the outcome.

Of course, the argument can be made that by segmenting the county into separate planning blocks, we're failing to address impacts and planning in the broader context. There is merit to this. Certainly, some of what happens in Glenwood affects me in Oakland Mills. But, we would still have the General Plan providing overarching guidance. We would still have a countywide approval process for local plans. And we would still have some type of adequate public facilities test, presumably.

But these measures would only protect against the bad. What about ensuring the good? Who judges what is good? The people of Glenwood, I imagine, have a better understanding of what makes their community special and what would make it better than I do living in Oakland Mills, and vice versa. Who am I to begrudge them their preferences, assuming what they like has a negligible impact on the general welfare of the county, something we could all assess during the approval phases before the Planning Board and Council.

I think what it comes down to is if we really support citizen participation in planning, how do we get people involved? I would argue that we do so by making planning and zoning issues tangible to everyone. And we do that by focusing on their individual community, both in its own context and in the broader context of the county as a whole.

To be sure, this is not all I’ll have to say about the proposal. But it’s a start and hopefully it’s enough to get a discussion going.

**Reminder: Nothing I say on this blog represents a solid commitment to anything. I reserve the right to change my mind on everything I just said.

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