Public Participation in the Comprehensive Plan Update

Jon Quitslund

I began this post early in October, but my writing always proceeds slowly, subject to interruptions – by the world around me if not by my own second thoughts and lapses of concentration.  And this time I fell deep into a ‘writer’s block’ predicament.

I turned away to avoid the pain; eventually, I discovered that some things I had written were not true, and other facts had emerged that I should report upon.

I hope that what I’m posting now is both true and useful.

The Planning Commission meeting on October 1 was entirely devoted to discussion of the Public Participation Program, which will serve as the basic framework for the review and update of our Comprehensive Plan.  The Program describes some of the occasions and methods by which citizens can obtain information and make their own contributions to the charter for our community’s future.

A Steering Committee, consisting of three Council members (Blair, Blossom, and Tollefsen) and three members of the Planning Commission (Gale, Lewars, and Pearl), working with COBI staff, developed a draft of the Program, which was first discussed in a Planning Commission meeting on September 11.

After discussion at the October 1 meeting, the six Planning Commissioners present were unanimous in recommending to the City Council that they formally adopt the Program.  The Council discussed the Program on October 21; they are scheduled to complete their review and vote on the enabling resolution on October 28.

In the discussion of the Public Participation Program on September 11, there was strong interest in adding citizens unaffiliated with COBI to the Steering Committee, and that desire was expressed again at the second meeting.

The Steering Committee is responsible for guiding the update process, keeping track of all written and oral comments and making recommendations on the scope of the project, both in the elements of the Comprehensive Plan and with regard to its implementation in the Municipal Code.

I was persuaded that adding members to the Steering Committee would impact its efficiency.  All of the Committee’s meetings will be public, and citizens can both observe and contribute to discussions.  I’m aware that some citizens continue to feel that the update process is being too tightly managed from within COBI, and I’m hoping that such attitudes will dissipate over time.

One thing I’m sure of: the update process is not going to be an exercise in steering around problems, shrugging off criticism, and preserving the status quo for the benefit of City staff and business as usual.

The involvement of citizens with specific interests and expertise will be crucial to the success of the update project when several Ad Hoc Committees are formed to draft changes to the various elements of the Comprehensive Plan and its implementation in the Municipal Code.  Much of the real work of the update, as I envision it, will take shape in those committees, during the Winter and Spring months of 2015.

The first steps in deliberation on the scope and substance of the update will be taken soon, in a pair of meetings in the Council chambers: first in the evening, 6 to 9:30 on Nov. 12, and then in the daytime, 10 to 1:30 on Nov. 17.  These meetings will be important opportunities for citizens to share their visions of our community’s present circumstances and our future.  Members of the Planning Commission and the City Council will be present and involved in small-group breakout sessions; I hope that the broad spectrum of our citizenry, and especially those who are seldom seen in City Hall, will turn out for these meetings.

As I understand it, reference points for the Nov. 12th and 17th meetings will come from two key pieces of the current Comprehensive Plan: the Vision Statement and the Five Overriding Principles That Guide the Plan.  (These are two pages that preface the Comp Plan’s Introduction; they can be accessed easily on the Navigate Bainbridge page of the City website.)

Are these still accurate and adequate descriptions of our community’s values and our ‘sense of place’?  Should anything be added to the vision or the principles?  Do we need to correct course in specific areas to be more consistent with our ideals?

Discussion and, perhaps, redefinition of the community’s vision and principles will set the stage for six subsequent meetings of a different sort, beginning in December and extending through March.  These will be “scoping/listening forums”: Planning Commission and Council members will be present primarily to listen to citizens – and citizens, presumably, will be speaking and listening to one another, exploring differences and common ground.

* * *

Are you familiar with COBI’s Priority Based Budgeting system?  It’s a new way of thinking about the City’s biannual budget, adopted in the Spring of this year, and it looks like an excellent set of tools for planning and funding the City’s necessary and discretionary operations.  (For more information, go to the City website: http://www.bainbridgewa.gov/633/Priority-Based-Budgeting.)

There’s a reason for my digression: I’ve mentioned COBI’s budgeting system because its key elements will be used to organize the six public forums.  In a graphic display that you will find on the COBI website, the City’s services are organized in six categories: Safe City; Healthy and Attractive Community; Green, Well-Planned Community; Vibrant Economy; Reliable Infrastructure & Connected Mobility; and Good Governance.

Starting out clueless about this new budgeting system, I was somewhat dubious about its relevance to the update process: I thought it would add an extra layer of complexity to a project that is already awfully complicated.

I still have a lot to learn, but I can now see several advantages to linking our revision of the Comprehensive Plan to the budgeting system.  As different as they are, both the Comp Plan and the budget framework are toolkits for planning and managing our civic life; each ought to be consistent with the other.  Both are asset maps, describing what goes on in our community, and both also describe goals and aspirations – “the way it’s s’posed to be.”

Using the budgeting system as a frame of reference for re-thinking the Comprehensive Plan may help to bring our ideas and our language down to earth, focused primarily upon the City’s core responsibilities.  (Pragmatism is, I hope, one of the community values that will be exhibited throughout this project.)  The update process could also test the will and ability of our City Council and the COBI staff to deliver on the commitments that the budgeting system lays out.

* * *

I’ve now said more than once that throughout the long update process, the entire COBI apparatus (the City Manager and administrative staff, the Council, and the Planning Commission) will be on trial in the eyes of the general public.  I say that not to be cranky, but in a good way, as a true believer in good governance and long range planning.

As you’ll see if you visit the City’s website and its description of Priority Based Budgeting, the page describing Good Governance explains what that shiny concept means in an array of specific commitments.  One of them reads, “Supports decision-making with timely and accurate short-term and long-range analysis that enhances vision and planning.”

Another says that the City “fosters trust and transparency by ensuring accountability, efficiency, integrity, innovation and best practices in all operations.”

These commitments pertain directly to what’s involved – and what’s at stake – in the Comprehensive Plan update.  These are promises to keep.

* * *

You must know that the update of our Comprehensive Plan (and those of other communities across the state) is required by law in accordance with the Growth Management Act.  I expect that you’ve also heard that Bainbridge Island is required to plan for increases in our population over the coming decades.

The prospect of population growth is a cause for alarm here, and rightly so.  Some citizens have reacted angrily, finding fault with the GMA and saying that a ‘quota’ for growth can’t legitimately be applied to us.  It is widely believed that the Growth Management Act is part of a state-level strategy to promote growth, imposing population increases, willy-nilly, on communities such as ours.

This is an unfortunate misunderstanding.  There’s a big difference between promoting growth, within limits or without, and managing growth – planning for what is likely to happen and accommodating future needs with the necessary infrastructure and development standards.

The Puget Sound Regional Council, based in Seattle, is responsible for guiding counties and cities as they update Comprehensive Plans and respond to regional projections of growth in population and employment opportunities.

If you are interested in gaining a better understanding of these issues, I recommend consulting the PSRC’s multi-part study, VISION 2040, which is available online.  I plan to write about the study and its relevance to our project in my next post, some time before the end of November.

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