Planners Should Lead or Get Out of the Way

This is an example of a planning approval error.  These Gold Beach condominiums have been threatened by the ocean since their construction in the early 2000’s.

Brent Thompson Medford Mail Tribune July 19,1992

Curry County Reporter July 25, 2012

          Oregon arguably has the most successful planning program in the country for avoiding many land use sins found in other states.  Although Oregon’s planning program is primarily known for its rural orientation, it also offers a lot for cities.  Through the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development and the U of O sponsored Oregon Planning Institute there is great support for planners to help them guide their communities towards resource conservation and the fostering of comfortable, walkable residential neighborhoods and viable downtowns.     

          Oregon law requires each city to have a Comprehensive Plan where citizens commit to a vision that reflects the values of that community.  And city councils and planning commissions usually set annual goals regarding planning.   

          Resources are available to assist planners in encouraging the adoption of ordinances that promote the construction of mixed use projects and accessory dwelling units, both of which conserve land thereby reducing sprawl and municipal infrastructure costs and which offer additional property rights to both residential and commercial property owners.  

          Mixed use projects also tend to add architectural interest because they tend to be more than one story. 

          Accessory dwelling ordinances benefit communities because they reflect changing American demographics where single family dwellings are often no longer practical. Increasingly there are families where parents move in with adult children or where adult children cannot afford to live independently or want to return home after years on their own.  The opportunity to add a separate dwelling unit onto a house or construct one in existing space enables homeowners to better adapt to today’s demographic and economic realities.  Accessory dwelling units also increase affordability because home owners may rent out a portion of their property to help with expenses. 

          There are also resources to help planners formulate site design guidelines which might add architectural interest in new construction and in remodels.  And there are model landscaping and open space ordinances which towns can use to become more aesthetic and pleasing to drive through and live in.   

          There have been programs such as “Safe Routes to Schools” where, for years, grants for pedestrian and bicycle amenities were available.  The goal was to make it easier for children to walk or bicycle to school so they would exercise more than if parents drove their children because streets had no sidewalks or routes to and from schools were on streets too busy for parents to feel comfortable.  The grants available in the Safe Routes to Schools program were substantial, but to receive money a community had to formulate a prioritized transportation plan for pedestrians and bicyclists.  But if there was no plan, cities received no money. 

          The rewriting of ordinances promoting housing affordability, community aesthetics, increased conservation of land and other resources, greater economic viability for business owners, and more transportation alternatives takes effort and leadership.  It takes a continual drive on the part of  planners to generate enthusiasm and community involvement and to educate decision makers and citizens of a given town’s potential so that town can become as livable and economically viable as possible.

          Many planners do lead, educate, and inspire and try to rewrite ordinances to help cities become better places.  But many do not.  Those who do not, default on their professionalism and responsibility as planners to their communities.   

          It is the job of planners, who have the specialized knowledge and focus, to improve their communities.  If over time their communities have not noticeably progressed towards Comprehensive Plan and annual goals, those planners have failed, and they should get out of the way or be removed so someone can have their job who is effective and committed. Over time it is too expensive for a community in terms of lost opportunities to tolerate “dead in the water” planning programs led by uninspired, resistant, and negative planners. In Oregon great support for planners is available, and there is no valid excuse for not using it.

Brent Thompson is a building renovator who has been a homeowner in Gold Beach since 2000 and has spent 20 years on municipal commissions. This column last appeared in the Curry County Reporter 

Fortunately beach access is a given in Oregon thanks to a declaration in the early 1900’s that beaches are highways.  This view is from Cape Sebastian towards the south near the Coastal Trail.