In my family, there is a range of political perspectives sufficiently divergent as to guarantee that our gatherings will be full of lively discussion, with that liveliness at times reaching frenetic levels that require various tactics to defuse.
The triggers can be as mundane as where we should have dinner, but the passions these conversations can ignite are known to be explosive. What ultimately frames the boundaries of our conversations is the shared values we posses as members of the same family. Plus, at the end of the day, we need to eat something.
So it is not at all unexpected – or without precedent – that in broader settings, such as county planning processes for instance, similar conflagrations can occur and escalate. The trick to a successful outcome, it seems, is in how the diversity of opinion is gathered, considered and incorporated into the final decision. In La Plata County’s failed comprehensive planning effort, the failure came not in the discussion or how it was handled, but in the decision-making that the process required.
The issues of contention in the planning process are hardly unique to La Plata County. Concerns about private property rights, the necessity or utility of comprehensive planning, or the process by which the effort is conducted are common refrains in such undertakings, and as such they are often lengthy and exhaustive.
Chaffee County began its last comprehensive planning work in 1996 and did not adopt the plan until 2000. Don Reimer, that county’s development director, said that the plan still draws feedback reflecting the spectrum of positions in Chaffee County: Some say the plan was invalid because of the way input was gathered, others say it is watered down because of those concerns. “I think it is probably a good plan because nobody is happy with it,” Reimer said.
Reimer was half joking, but the sentiment reflects the significance and scope of comprehensive planning – factors that can be off-putting for residents who are uncomfortable with the notion to begin with. The plans go far beyond land use, and as such, require thorough consideration.
“A comprehensive plan really should be comprehensive. It’s not just a land planning document, it’s a plan for the future of the community,” Reimer said. Achieving that vision, of course, begins by agreeing to start down the path – something that is hardly as easy as it sounds, given the range of priorities in any given county, no matter how close-knit by shared values.
Lurline Curran has been Grand County’s manager for 13 years, before which she was the planning director for 17 years. In her tenure, the county has undergone comprehensive-planning efforts three times, during each of which the issues of concern were consistent: growth should occur in the right places and at the right pace, the county should remain a nice place to live and raise children, the area’s rural character should be maintained, and there should be adequate job opportunities for county residents. As much as these issues unite Grand County residents, Curran said, they can also draw divisions in how they are addressed. When that happens, as was the case in the county’s most recent process, which culminated in an updated plan in 2011, the pressure placed on the planning commission can be intense.
“Most planning commissions are not equipped to handle huge public meetings where there is contention,” Curran said. “You need to help the planning commission understand the benefits of master planning so that if there is public outcry they can understand it from two perspectives: as a citizen and as a member of a public board.”
In doing so, Curran said, the key is in providing sufficient information to all involved – and working through the issues to craft a far-reaching vision.
“It’s really a matter of education, because people will make good decisions if they have the information,” Curran said.
The operative word, of course, is “decisions” and that is crucial difference between the planning outcomes in Chaffee and Grand counties and the one in La Plata County. All three processes shared lengthy timeframes and divergent positions on how to address issues of shared values – many of which were the same across the three counties as well. La Plata County’s plan-drafting process was no less exhaustive and inclusive than Chaffee’s or Grand’s efforts.
Led by county planning staff and consultants, resident input was painstakingly gathered over two years and incorporated into the document, which was crafted with the blood, sweat, tears and blessing of the broad-based working group that compiled resident input.
“Everyone knew it would be contentious from day one. The contentiousness didn’t blindside anyone,” said Charlie Deans, of Community by Design, the lead consultant in La Plata County’s effort. “There wasn’t a word in that plan that the working group didn’t read, review, vet and revise.”
Ultimately, though, the contention that the plan drew during the decision-making process overtook the county’s desire to see the effort through to a meaningful outcome – thereby undermining all the work that had gone into the process up to that point.
The uncertainty and lack of 100 percent lockstep agreement on the plan’s goals, let alone its guts, pushed decision-makers beyond their comfort zone. It is understandable, but it nonetheless disappointing.
“There has to be a will to do it,” Curran said. “People always wonder, ‘What am I losing?’ It’s always hard to see the (potential) gain when there’s no proof of it.”
In La Plata County, it seems, it was less of a risk to just end the conversation leaving all at the table still hungry.
Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.