Monday, May 23, 2011

Will the general plan focus on our common ground?

The Amador County supervisors and planning commissioners are going to discuss the latest draft of the county general plan this week. The courts have called the state-required general plan the "constitution" of a county, so it's an important document.

The plan shapes how and where the county will grow over the next 20 years. It also defines which resources will be protected and lays out programs to implement land development and resource protection.

Back when the county started on this plan update in 2005, the county board of supervisors talked about developing a "consensus" plan that most people in the county could live with. The idea was to avoid the kind of conflict that often leads to costly and time-consuming litigation, which El Dorado County faced when it last updated its plan.

The supervisors established a General Plan Advisory Committee made up of diverse interests to help develop the plan. The GPAC met 27 times in public meetings, from July 2006 to April 2008. Then the supervisors and planning commissioners took a scalpel, or maybe a hatchet, to what they had done (depending on your point of view). Over the last year or so, county staff and hired consultant EDAW have been revising the plan so that it is consistent with the county officials' direction.

So now, we find ourselves with yet another draft to review, and an apparent move by Motherlode Tea Party members and friends to rewrite the plan entirely. With that background and this latest twist, I thought it might be instructive to look back to the supervisors' original intention and ask, "What would a consensus plan look like?"

So this morning I took a look at two different surveys I have handy, a telephone survey done by a professional polling company for the Amador Association of Realtors in June 2010 and an online survey conducted by the Foothill Conservancy and some co-sponsors in April 2008. Considering that the "Great Recession" intervened during the gap between the two surveys, any consistency in the results is probably pretty telling. I also tried to find the results of a electronic-voting workshop conducted by the county in September 2008, but didn't find its new location until after I had started this post.

The two surveys reviewed had some similar questions and also some different areas of focus. For purposes of this exercise, I had to focus on the similarities. With that in mind, what do the results show about Amador County residents' common ground regarding growth and development? They show that local residents want to:
  • Focus new development in already developed areas rather than promote sprawl
  • Protect working landscapes (forests, ranches and farms)
  • Protect the natural environment
  • Protect cultural and historical resources
  • Promote economic development that will create more jobs
  • Make parks and recreation sites part of the county mix
Both surveys also show that local residents think the county has been growing at about the right rate in recent years (that is, rather slowly). And locals value good planning as well as personal property rights.

So what should that mean for the general plan? If the county wants to develop a plan most people can support, it needs to address all of these things. There should be reasonable assurances that the areas of community common ground will be promoted and protected by good planning rather than left to luck or the vagaries of the real estate market and twists and turns of the economy. There should be assurance that the county will be taking positive steps to promote real local economic development. And of course, the plan should protect private property rights, but the fact is, the county can't approve a plan that violates anyone's property rights and expect it to hold up to legal challenge.

Will the plan embody and protect our community common ground? Or will the supervisors cave to those who want the plan to be as weak as possible?

It's too soon to say, but if you want to help shape the plan, you can attend the meeting on May 25 and later, comment in the related EIR and plan review process.

It's your county, after all, and unless you speak up, you may not like what happens to it over the next 20 years.