Thursday, October 11

A planning citizenry

One of the important developments in the practice of land use planning has been the effort to democratize the process as much as possible. Professional planners are no longer encouraged to see themselves as the experts imposing their vision onto the local populace, but rather as facilitators organizing a grassroots vision into a workable plan. More listening, less speaking. However much this may complicate the process, there seems to be universal agreement that various stakeholders in the community must be involved in order to enhance and validate the results. This has to be a good thing.

Last night I attended a workshop put on by the Ravalli county planning department. The Bitterroot valley is a rural setting that is growing very quickly, with people attracted both to the natural beauty and the proximity to Missoula. Last year the public mandated an entire overhaul of the zoning regulations and set up a one year deadline. Under pressure, the county asked the Sonoran Institute, a firm that assists regional planners throughout the West, to come and help them with involving the community in the writing of the regulations. Last night's meeting was an overview of the nuts and bolts of how to seek consensus in a respectful and hopefully decisive manner.

The presenter laid out a framework for how to conduct meetings. The ultimate challenge seems to reside in how to arrive at a decisive result without disenfranchising any of the community interests. In reality, unanimous consent is impossible. Areas like Ravalli county are inhabited by such a wide cross-section of people, from third-generation ranchers to wealthy retirees. They each have different ideals and different needs. However, the goal is to reach a point when each of these stakeholders feels as if they have at least been listened to seriously, even if their agenda has not been completely met.

I deeply respect this approach, which seems to stand against the starkly polarized and often cynical nature of national politics. At a more local level, it should be possible to arrive at a conclusion without resorting to the raw power of legal fiat. This only leads the winners to gloat in their victory and the losers to become embittered and resentful. That may be tolerable in a larger setting, but it is no way to make decisions among friends and neighbors.

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