Friday, January 31, 2014

Why we need good comprehensive plans

 This week's national "Better! Cities and Towns" newsletter contained a timely article about comprehensive plans written by Bill Spikowski, FAICP, of Spikowski Planning Associates in Fort Myers (a BikeWalkLee supporter organization).  As Lee County is nearing the end of the Horizon 2035 Comp Plan amendments process, this article reminds us of the importance of a good comp plan and its implementation.

Easy steps can be taken to provide more vision and effectiveness for a municipal road map to the future.

Bill Spikowski, Better! Cities and Towns
 Note: This article is in the January-February print issue of BCT.

Most cities and towns have a comprehensive plan, an earnest document intended to guide elected and appointed officials as they make decisions about the future. Some comprehensive plans are quickly forgotten; others are followed literally when land is being rezoned and infrastructure expansion are being considered.

How can you tell if a comprehensive plan has become stale, meaningless, or even harmful? Watch for these tell-tale signs:

  • When the vision described in the plan sounds like it was written thirty years ago – or the plan is vision-free.
  • When the comprehensive plan has to be retrofitted to allow walkable neighborhoods or “complete streets.”
  • When rezoning applications routinely require amendments to the comprehensive plan.
  • When the city engineer insists he must widen a road to meet the plan’s level-of-service standards, despite adopted complete-streets policies.
  • When the future land-use map in the plan looks like a zoning map, breaking the community into single-use monocultures.
  • When the plan is no longer being implemented.

It doesn’t have to stay that way! A tool with such authority and potential is a great opportunity for a community to identify and respond to current challenges and opportunities.

Comprehensive plans are so-named because they address the local government’s entire area and cover a variety of topics including transportation, utilities, housing, and the environment. These plans, known as general plans in many states, usually contain a future land-use map and related goals and policies that can be a strong positive force in redirecting ingrained habits about how a community should grow (or not grow, as circumstances dictate).

Communities across the country take advantage of the comprehensive planning process to set a new course for their future. The best comprehensive plans define and protect natural features and farmland, are explicit about the nature of the future street network, and have future land-use maps that establish the desired character of existing and future urban areas.

The examples highlighted here just graze the surface of what has been happening recently in comprehensive planning.

  • Somerville, MA
  • Nashville, TN
  • Raleigh, NC
  • El Paso, TX  
Effective comprehensive plans identify the specific steps to be taken after the plan is adopted to implement the plan. These can include better methods of selecting capital improvements, new annexation policies, and zoning-code overhauls.

Without thorough implementation, a comprehensive plan’s true potential has been wasted.

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