Wednesday, June 14, 2006

(Zoning) Knowlege is power...

At the root of our ineffective zoning system is a failure to effectively engage and include citizens. If we could only get citizens more informed, more involved and the process more open, many other concerns likely could be put to bed.

But how?

Things like public notification about zoning cases in their neighborhood would help. So would improved signage. So would more convenient meeting times. And all of these are addressed in the Democrats’ zoning change proposal, even though the provision for creating community planning districts has been dropped (for now).

All of these are cosmetic changes that would make participation somewhat easier for the stretched-thin masses, but wouldn’t fundamentally alter the way citizens participate. Citizens would still be left reacting, fighting and, most likely, marginalized.

A major impediment to increasing involvement is the amount of time required just to monitor development in Howard County. The papers do a good job of covering the controversies and the Department of Planning and Zoning website has a lot of good, if somewhat disparate, information, but despite the availability of this, connecting and collecting all of it can be a full-time job, especially if what’s going on in your neighborhood is not one of the hot-button issues, like Town Center.

Groups like COPE, Howard County Citizens Association, League of Women Voters, Preservation Howard County and others are effective at conveying relevant information to their constituencies, but there is still a large portion of the county not involved with any of these groups. What’s more, the information is still compartmentalized and disconnected.

Which is why I think we should strive to create something like this in Howard County.

The site is, a New York City Planning Information Portal, and it was constructed by an NYU graduate student. On this site, visitors can access all of the relevant information about planning and development in the city. This information – news articles, planning documents, meeting calendars and other resources – is available on a neighborhood specific format. That is, you can type in your address and with one click learn about all that is happening, development-wise, in your area.

Clearly, we don’t have an urban planning school of graduate students capable of building and maintaining such a site for us. So, the model doesn’t fit perfectly for us. But we do have a need for this and I’m sure the will to make it happen exists, whether in the nonprofit sector or as a project for the county to oversee.

Take a tour of the site and let me know what you think.

My take is that this planning portal should be just the beginning of how utilize technology – particularly the web – to better engage and inform citizens. In the near future, I can envision interactive features that allow citizens to engage in planning from their homes, similar to Sim City (only real); coupled with the county's publicly available GIS mapping features, this could actually make planning and participation fun. Short of that, we could also make it easier for citizens to comment on zoning cases by creating online forums, a county planning blog, and perhaps allow for testimony to be submitted via the web.

What else?


Anonymous said...

Is the "root of our ineffective zoning system a failure to effectively engage citizens," as you suggest? Or, on the other hand, is it the apathy of a silent majority who for the most part would rather sit on their sofas and watch "realty" TV while their actual lives and community seems to lack the proper entertainment value. Ironically, these folks are too dazed & numb to defend themselves, or to even read a blog like this period.

Granted, I agree with your points about the needed improvements in the zoning process, but when you look at the pathetically low voter turnout in Howard County Village elections, and notice the same 20 or 30 people at virtually every Howard County event, I have to admit that the cynic in me has been triggered.

The planning site you named is excellent and very helpful in many respects, and yes, something more accessible is needed here in Howard County. Consider however, that the existing power structure would like to maintain the status quo, is not terribly motivated to be more transparent, and to some degree is "playing ball" as a form of lip service to quell special interest groups prior to elections.

However, there is the issue of supply and demand. If enough folks demanded information, information would be made available. I open up the dialogue and ask, who wants to know more? More importantly, who cares?

Anonymous said...

Who cares? Parties who know they will be affected by development care. Such people include parents of overcrowded schools, neighbors who don't want their cul-de-sac turned into a throughway, people living near forests/streams/wetlands/etc. that want to ensure regulations supposed to protect these sensitive areas are fully enforced, owners/employees/vendors of Mom-and-Pop shops fearing being crushed by big box stores, people living near roads that will be pressured to expand to support increased development, etc.

Granted, it would be easier to care more with more awareness of the process and how our community can be improved with more public involvement in scrutinizing development plans, and easier and fuller access to DPZ and development information.

M-F 8:30-5 is currently the only time for the public to visit DPZ and take a look at plan documentation submitted to DPZ by developers. (Two exceptions are some scheduled public meetings and a predevelopment community meeting the developer is required to hold which usually lacks detailed project plan information). Not too convenient for many folks.

Further, when reviewing a plan folder, last time I checked, there wasn't a way to know for sure what documents/plans/information had been submitted thus far and, thus, to determine if any plan information was missing from the folder. Yes, I have seen folders where required and previously submitted information was missing. Subsequent requests turned up the missing information which was at odds with other information in the plan and resulted in involvement by other government organizations, retraction of DPZ development approval, and the developer having to change their plans to comply with code.

A simple fix for better tracking submitted development information would be requiring metadata - 1) a list inside the document folder that shows the date, title, and number of pages of each item's addition to the folder and 2) a second document checkout list that shows date, DPZ staff name, document title, sign out date, sign in date. That would make it a no-brainer to determine the entirety of the current project documentation and if anything is missing where to immediately find it.

Better yet, keep this list in a database, and allow parties who have registered with DPZ as parties interested in a particular development to be autonotified via e-mail when new information has been received. Autonotification would sure beat having to visit DPZ every few days to avoid precious days ticking by when there are only a finite number of days to review and, if necessary, appeal any errant plan approvals. (DPZ does send copies of the correspondence it sends to developers to people who register as interested parties for a particular project.)

Further down the road, I can easily imagine all project documentation submissions being accessible over the web around the clock (be it in .pdf, .doc, or .dwg/.dwf format, all viewable with free readers).

A community website integrating a Google Earth/SketchUp/Blogger Mashup integrated with the County's GIS could help. So could a little mashup between a list of those responsible for zoning/development review and approval oversight, the Election Commissions' campaign contributors web databases, and a list of local development interests.