Monthly Archives: August 2014

Secretly Gutting the Transportation Plan

Late in my career as a city planner for Gainesville, Florida, I tried to blow the whistle on what I believed was a clear violation of adopted protocol for the adoption of local government plans, policies or regulations.

What I experienced was quite remarkable, breathtaking and enraging. And my effort to blow the whistle failed.

It pertained to the draft transportation plan I had authored for the Gainesville Comprehensive Plan.

In a nutshell, what happened was that the City Public Works Department had gutted and emasculated the draft transportation plan.

How much had they gutted it? The department so substantially watered down the plan that I informed my supervisor that the revision would require me to disown the plan. I would no longer want my name associated with it, and would refuse to present it at public meetings — largely because presenting it would give the false impression that I implicitly supported the current version. Essentially, the changes created a blatant internal contradiction in the Comprehensive Plan, since the transportation plan would be aggressively promoting sprawl and a downward spiral in our quality of life – the opposite of what the overall Comprehensive Plan for Gainesville was seeking.

This gutting of the draft plan had been achieved by the Public Works Department despite the fact that at least a strong majority of commissioners (if not all five) would support the language that was removed, revised, or otherwise converted to meaningless pabulum by Public Works staff.

The emasculation of the transportation plan by Public Works were, in effect, done “behind closed doors,” so to speak. It was done secretly because staff had made substantial changes that would be almost impossible for elected officials or citizens to notice. This was because earlier, the version of the plan I had prepared was approved by the Plan Board (an advisory board for the elected officials) a few months ago.

But in a shocking departure from long-standing protocol, the elected officials never saw the version their advisory board had reviewed at a public meeting and recommended to the elected officials for adoption.

The radical, emasculating changes to the plan which were requested by Public Works were hidden from elected officials because the version officials were to see a their next meeting would not show any strike-throughs or underlines to call out the extreme changes demanded by Public Works staff. Changes to the version adopted by the advisory board.

This is never done.

In all my years as a city planner, this kind of underhanded, secretive shenanigans was never engaged in by staff, and for good reason. It is completely unethical and out of line for staff to make major changes to a draft public document without showing the decision-making officials the changes via strike-throughs and underlines.

Again, as I noted above, this veiled tactic to slip changes through the elected officials without their realizing what was happening took my breath away, largely because in my previous conversations with the elected officials, it became clear to me that there was broad support for the language I had placed in the earlier draft of the plan. Elected officials would almost certainly have approved of my language.

But elected officials would never know of my original language because it was removed without showing elected officials the language that was being removed (language that they would have supported).

In my opinion, staff should never hide major policy decisions from the decision-makers.

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“Concurrency” for New Development?

By Dom Nozzi

“Concurrency” is a regulatory rule that seeks to ensure that new development does not result in a diminishment of the amount of parks or schools or potable water per person. Some communities call it an “adequate facilities” rule.

I worked as a town planner for 20 years as a long-range comprehensive planner in Florida, and a great deal of my work involved helping my community implement the state concurrency rule adopted a year before I started my job.

This state growth management law goes into great detail and requires an enormous amount of study to determine, precisely, concurrency needs for facilities (primarily adequacy for roads to avoid congestion). The concurrency rule seems, on the surface, to be a good proxy for our determining if we are “managing” growth and protecting our quality of life.

In fact, it is an incredibly bad measure for sustainability and quality of life.

Despite first impressions, the rule tends to move communities in the opposite, downwardly-spiraling direction.

The rule is fairly harmless for, say, parks or schools. But for roads, maintaining per capita road capacity with a concurrency or adequate facilities rule is ruinous.Burma-207

In most or all instances where concurrency is adopted by a community to manage new development, the rule says nothing meaningful about needing to maintain a level-of-service for the most important elements of a quality community: quality neighborhoods, transportation choice, housing choice, urban design quality, compact development, mixed use, or quality of life.

Instead, nearly all applications of the rule forces the community to divert an enormous amount of time and energy into putting together a huge amount of data that is nearly meaningless for creating quality communities — data that is often counter-productive. And little more than mindless, bureaucratic bean counting.

Because of this, communities with a concurrency rule often have very little available staff time that can be devoted to putting together a vision for quality of life and sustainability. Such communities could have time, but it would require more money to hire more planners — and visionary planners at that. By setting up a concurrency rule, most communities get lowest common denominator planning.

The smaller towns with no planning staff or history of planning are helped to at least start doing something to fight the Wal-Marts and sprawl developers, but for bigger, more sophisticated cities, the rule typically means that planning staff squander a huge chunk of their time on bean counting: working up huge amounts of numbers that don’t help the community — and usually hurts the community.

Almost never does a community with a concurrency rule ask or expect any visioning or designing for quality of life. They are so busy counting beans that they kill themselves to assess concurrency numbers, and then delude themselves into thinking that such a number-crunching effort will somehow give them, magically, a pleasant, walkable town.

We need to start over again on concurrency.

Concurrency must start finding proxies for quality of life.

The road concurrency rule (which is the only concurrency rule that matters for most or all of the communities which have adopted concurrency regulations) means, instead, that all the community cares about is a quality of life for cars.

The unintended consequence of such a misguided focus on a quality car habitat rather than a quality people habitat? The community makes it inevitable that sprawl will be accelerated and the quality of life trashed. Indeed, both sprawl and quality of life end up being much worse than had the community not adopted a concurrency rule.

And what a bitter irony that would be.

 

 

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