Depth of Planning

So the other day I started poking around on our long-term transportation plans for Athens-Clarke County and the Athens-Clarke Comprehensive Plans (yes, because I’m that much of a map nerd) and came to a realization that I knew – but has never quite sunk in.

Everything is planned out already. Seriously. I mean, out to 2035 or something. A time frame which we can seriously barely comprehend. This raises a couple questions in my mind that I think are directly relevant to our politics.

First, why do we do this? I mean it is a bit of hubris and sort of breaking a bit of a social contract with the citizens of 2035.

Second, does this depth and breadth of planning set up our local politics to play out in a certain way? And if so, how can we better address and define local problems with local initiative and local consent.

Back in 1989, the state of Georgia passed the Planning Act that requires local communities to have Comprehensive Plans and to be integrated into Regional Planning units, which are coordinated by the Department of Community Affairs. Now, all this is to synchronize and justify various efforts of governments to develop their regions efficiently. Apparently this was a problem way back when – and can still be evidenced in and around Atlanta, where zoning, road conditions, and other infrastructure distinctly changes at the county line. So, all well and good – stop helter skelter planning. The catch is that governments tend to work slowly, so we end up ‘planning’ out all this stuff on trend. It’s not really fair to current citizens to be subject of the planning decisions of the 1970s, but that’s how it works.

In addition, we do it this way to maintain a semblance of the rule of law. To have a process (whether it’s transparent is a different matter) in order to sort out interests fairly. For example, it would not be useful or just for my neighbor to get on the County Commission only to rezone my property without just cause or due process. So that’s kind of how we get here. Even though it’s flawed and on a bizarre, hubristic timeline, long-term planning is better than none.

The real political problem with long-term planning though, is that it forces our local politics into a adversarial, reactionary battle at every turn, rather than a constructive, consensus-led, and politically driven battle.

We are seeing this process playing out as we speak – and at the Feb 1 Commission meeting. The Classic Center had a long-term theoretical plan way back when. Now they have the money, and the plan goes ahead. The public were unawares, and are now scrambling to figure out what in the world is going on. Now, normally I might blame the public or the papers for falling asleep, but who can keep up with all these planning documents, when they are contingent on so many factors that may or may not come together, that we end up just ignoring it.

A good example of this process is the Hwy 78 widening out to Oglethorpe County. They recently had a public input meeting for the road…that may not be built for another 20 years, but the planning document required an input session, which has now been held.

So, 5 to 25 years from now, a road will start construction, and eminent domain will be brought out, and people will get mad, and demand input on a road that affects them only to find out that it was planned for, inputted on, and ready to roll.

10 years ago Athens probably did an input session on the Classic Center (no fact-check, but the point holds) and that was all well and good, but who could’ve considered that we might have a River district coming up – who could’ve foreseen the boom Downtown, or the financing crunch brought by the recession. And now we are stuck reacting and scrambling to fix a plan that has been sitting around for a decade.  And we will judge our Commissioners on making decisions that were really already made before they were in office.

What I want to know is this endemic to local politics – this plan/react dynamic, or is there a better way that is practiced in other cities?

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