Further Thoughts on Comprehensive Plan Principles

Jon Quitslund

When I posted my two-part essay on the current Comp Plan’s Overriding Principles, I thought I might follow it up when I had some reactions from readers.  A couple of members of the City Council thanked me for sending the essay to them, but as a group the Council seems still to be unready to discuss policy directives.  Ron Peltier, the leader of Islanders for Responsible Development, took the trouble to respond to several passages, and what he wrote has prompted me to think again about some of the principles that will, I hope, guide our update of the Comp Plan – and, in due time, the other planning and regulatory instruments that need to be aligned with it.

Ron Peltier and I differ in some respects, but our differences are amicable; there’s a good deal of common ground between us.  He has helped me to clarify my own thinking, and on one important point, to correct a mistaken interpretation of the Comp Plan’s language.

Commenting on what I said in Part I of the essay about Islanders’ attitudes toward development, Ron calls me out for “trivializing” concerns that he considers legitimate.  I agree with him that some specific proposals for development should be contested, even protested, and some of the forces driving development run counter to the common good.

All development proposals should be carefully examined, in accordance with the Municipal Code and other applicable regulations, including the Comprehensive Plan: that’s the rule that the City’s planners are sworn to abide by.  In my view they take their responsibilities seriously, sometimes facing resistance from people who think the rules shouldn’t apply to them.  Some of the decisions made in City Hall are questionable, but I don’t find fault with the staff so much as with the regulations they are obliged to administer.

The biggest problems arise when technical details in the Municipal Code are out of synch with the Code’s (and the Comp Plan’s) description of goals and purposes.  I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when the letter of the law is insisted upon, not the spirit: it’s interpretations of the technicalities that are contested in court.

We have to fix inconsistencies, and require property owners (and the people who work for them) to pay more attention to the goals and purposes at the heart of our regulations.

The Comp Plan’s fifth principle calls for maintaining finite “environmental resources . . . at a sustainable level.”  I said that “as a concept, sustainability is nebulous,” and Ron objects that I gave away too much ground to the opposition – people whose “aspirations are . . . at odds with the notion of limits and preservation of environmental capital for the benefit of future generations.”  He has a point: we need to confront and resist the reckless pursuit of short-term profits, and we need to put sustainability on a solid foundation.

The problem, as I see it, is that it’s much easier to see what’s not sustainable than to establish fundamental sustainable practices, in a culture and a built environment that will support them, that will also disallow or discourage non-sustainable lifestyles.  That’s our real work; it’s going to take a long time, and if the word “nebulous” stands in the way of clarity about what needs to be done, let’s dispose of it, and get on with building consensus around a specific agenda.

I started Part II of my essay with comments on Principle 4: “The costs and benefits to property owners should be considered in making land use decisions.”  My first point was that this principle “focuses on the interests of private property owners” in a way that could be in conflict with Principle 5, which mandates conservation of environmental resources.

Ron’s comment on this point is most welcome.  He observes, and I agree, that the property owners affected by land use decisions are not only the individuals applying for permits to clear land, to build, or to modify structures or uses on their private property.  The costs and benefits to neighbors, and ultimately to a broader community, must also be considered.

Seen in this light, Principle 4 establishes a context in which all individual interests (specifically, “costs and benefits”) have to be weighed carefully.  (Too often, I think, “property rights” are claimed, and protected or promoted in regulations, as if they belonged to individuals in isolation from others.)

In several other comments, Ron expresses a strong desire to place limits on the growth of the island’s population, and to do so “when we can still preserve the quality and character of the island.”  I agree with him that a number of factors (water in our aquifers being the most discussed) impose limits on our ‘carrying capacity.’

While I’m a great believer in living within limits, I’m also aware that our ability to predict the future and control human behavior is very limited.

Some of the information needed for modeling growth and capacity over the decades ahead is already available, but we need more data, and better analysis of the many variables.  Models need to be brought up to date, fleshed out, critiqued, and made widely available, to provide a frame of reference for all the discussions of growth management that will occur, more or less constructively, in the course of the Comp Plan update.

It has been decided that the regional and local effects of climate change have to be considered in all aspects of the update: what can’t be avoided, we must adapt to.  This decision is bound to make a big difference in the scope and focus of the update process.

While Ron feels that placing limits on growth is already justified, he expresses doubt that the City Council and COBI staff are willing and able to do what needs to be done.  I’m approaching the tasks ahead in a more positive spirit, believing that anyone who wants to be respected and welcomed as a participant in the hard work and decision-making must first model respect for the sincerity of other participants.

The members of the City Council aren’t all on the same page regarding the principles and purposes driving the Comp Plan update, and that’s a good thing, because there are diverse, and sometimes conflicting, ideas and interests that have to be taken into account.

It’s going to be difficult for staff of the Planning and Public Works departments to manage the update process.  The whole project is not supposed to be “staff-driven,” but COBI staff, who have expert knowledge and ultimate responsibility for the Comprehensive Plan’s effectiveness, need to be fully engaged in the process, keeping it on track, more or less on schedule.  There will be a great deal of factual information and communication to be routed and recorded.  I don’t see how everything can be managed effectively without additional staff.

I am eagerly anticipating “Comprehensive Plan 101,” the public meeting at the High School on Tuesday evening, July 22nd, which will formally begin the project.


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