Smart Growth 2

"The term planning board is itself a misnomer. This board, a review body, is generally not empowered to make communitywide planning decisions. Rather, it simply reviews applications to assure compliance with existing regulations. As a result, odd as it may seem, in most places, no one is really planning. Even when a paid staff of government employees works as a planning department to support the planning board, this staff may or may not include anyone responsible for thinking about a town's future and planning for it. In many locales, especially fast-growing ones, the planning department is preoccupied with processing paperwork. As a consequence, it is the rare community these days that has a fresh, up-to-date plan produced by thoughtful local people and supported by reasonable and relevant research. Reform of community planning is needed across America. The system that has evolved no longer serves most places well." - Hot Towns: The Future of the Fastest Growing Communities in America, Peter Wolf, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick NJ, 1999, page 183

"Reform of community planning is needed across America," says Peter Wolf, a nationally recognized land planning, asset management, and urban planning authority. "The system that has evolved no longer serves most places well."

In communities across the nation, there is a growing concern that current development patterns -- dominated by what some call 'sprawl' -- are no longer in the long-term interest of our cities, existing suburbs, small towns, rural communities, or wilderness areas. Though supportive of growth, communities are questioning the economic costs of abandoning infrastructure in the city, only to rebuild it further out. Spurring the smart growth movement are demographic shifts, a strong environmental ethic, increased fiscal concerns, and more nuanced views of growth. The result is both a demand and a new opportunity for smart growth." --

Although the 'Smart Growth' movement is relatively new, the principles that underly this approach to development are not.

Smart growth has always required, for instance, a genuine commitment on the part of those in local government to the full participation of ALL of the 'stakeholders' in a development project. Those who are entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing development planning in a community - the Planning Boards, Boards of Trustees, and so on - must make such a commitment if 'smart growth' is to occur.

What is a 'stakeholder' and who are the 'stakeholders' in any development project? A stakeholder is by definition any person, or any group, having a stake in the decisions that are made in the planning process - anyone, in other words, who is likely to be directly affected by those decisions.

Land development projects typically have a number of different types of stakeholder, including but not necessarily limited to the following:

  • The owners of the property under development;
  • Prospective developers;
  • Government Planning and Land Use entities;
  • Local service providers (those who provide police, fire, mail, cable, and telephone services, etc.);
  • Those who are in charge of creating and maintaining community 'infrastructure' - i.e., roads, sewage, schools, etc;
  • Local businesses;
  • Residents in the neighborhood of the proposed project;
  • Established neighborhood associations and ad hoc neighborhood groups;
  • Residents from adjacent areas, and in the Village at large, who are likely to be directly affected by changes in traffic flow, increase in local school enrollment, etc.
  • Environmental oversight associations;
  • Historical preservation associations;

If stakeholder involvement in a planning process is going to be effective, stakeholders must be involved at the earliest possible stage in the process, and must be kept 'in the loop' throughout all subsequent stages:

Smart Growth plans and policies developed without strong citizen involvement will at best not have staying power; at worst, they will be used to create unhealthy, undesirable communities. When people feel left out of important decisions, they will be less likely to become engaged when tough decisions need to be made. Involving the community early and often in the planning process vastly improves public support for smart growth and often leads to innovative strategies that fit the unique needs of each community. [1]

How can Village planners encourage the involvement, in development planning, of ALL of the 'stakeholders' in a community?

The first step may very well be to see to it that formal planning processes are structured in such a way so as not to disclude particular types of stakeholder. In Dobbs Ferry it has characteristically been residents and neighborhood groups who are left out of the planning loop, or involved too late to have any effect on the direction that development projects take.

Because local government processes can all too easily be structured in such a way as to make it difficult for individual residents to participate in planning, it may also be necessary to critique local government structure and process. Is there a 'master plan' that guides zoning and land use codes? Is that plan up to date? Do the codes reflect that plan? These are some SPECIFIC questions that need to be asked in the course of doing such a critique.

But there is also another type of question that can be fruitfully asked about any kind of planning effort in general, especially planning that takes place under the auspices of government. Namely - are the planning processes that are in place rational, transparent, and inclusive? And is planning structured in such a way as to clarify who is ultimately responsible and accountable for seeing to it that planning will be rational, transparent, and inclusive?

1. Rational Development Planning

Is development planning in Dobbs Ferry rational?

  • Is there a plan that governs development by providing guidelines for growth - a socalled 'master plan'? [One was crafted in the 1962 and updated in the early 70s; but there is apparently some controversy over whether or not the Master Plan that was written back then was actually formally adopted - and so there seems to be confusion over whether (or the extent to which) this plan indeed operates as a guideline for planning.]

  • Is the Master Plan up-to-date? [Not according to some members of an official 'land use' committee that has been in operation for the past few years, and has looked into this matter.(1)]

  • Does the Code that governs zoning and land use in Dobbs Ferry follow the Master Plan? If not, what quides development planning? Is the Code a self-consistent document? Or is it a patchwork of loopholes and contradictions that render Dobbs Ferry neighborhoods fair game for unscrupulous developers?

No one in the Village seems to want to take responsibility for smart, planful development - development that rationally pursues agreed-upon goals and objectives that result from a set of shared values (clarified, by group process) in combination with carefully conducted needs studies and impact studies, in such a way that outcomes can be qualitatively and quantitatively evaluated.

The 1971 'update' of the Master Plan says:

The Village of Dobbs Ferry is almost completely developed. The old central area is subject to improvement; the majority of buildings thereabouts are worthy of architectural restoration and preservation. In consideration of these aspects, it would be less than useful to subject areas of the community to the bulldozer treatment of wholesale demolition and create densities higher than are found at present. [page 15]

If Dobbs Ferry was 'almost completely developed' in 1971, one can only conclude that now, thirty-one years and many 'subdivisions' later, if the Village is not over-developed it verges on such a state of affairs. Why, then, is the current Planning Board not concerned about what happens to whatever land remains? Why do they now not care that two development projects that are proposed for the 300 by 200 foot area on Virginia and Lefurgy will DOUBLE the density of families, family housing units, and resident-ownded cars in that neighborhood? Why do they adamantly refuse - at all costs, and against mounting objections - to insist that developers provide them with plans for those sites, ones that can be thoughtfully and responsibly reviewed in a manner that can determine if what is proposed for those lots fits what the Village and the neighborhood may reasonably expect of a development project?

In what sense does the current, laissez faire let-the-developers-do-what-profit-dictates approach to development qualify as 'rational' planning? How, in the absence of the kind of information that can only be provided by the details of a consolidated site plan, can a development proposal with such far-reaching consequences for so many people be determined to be a 'rational' plan?

2. Transparent Development Planning

Is planning in Dobbs Ferry 'transparent' - i.e., a public affair in which information is openly shared in a timely and thorough fashion with all stakeholders?

  • Do elected and appointed officials freely share information with all stakeholders, or do they keep pertinent information and decisions to themselves?

  • Do elected and appointed officials publically announce the decisions that have been made and provide adequate explanations for such decisions? Or are they more likely to keep the rationale for their decisions to themselves? At the June 27th Planning Board meeting, for example, a Village Attorney had to be repeatedly asked what section of the Code he had in mind when offering his opinion that the Planning Board 'was not permitted' to require a Site Plan Review from Virginia Avenue developers. This and similar behaviors inspired one resident to publically offer her observation that the attorney and other officials seemed to be treating citizens at the meeting as adversaries, not as partners in a collaborative planning effort.

  • Are decisions made openly in public meetings, or secretly, in special private meetings between a handful of stakeholders? In meetings dealing with the Virginia Avenue development, Board members did not seem to feel that they had to verbalize their reasons for dismissing objections raised by residents.

  • Are interested parties informed of the time and place of meetings relevant to the planning process? Are agendas made readily available to interested parties in a timely fashion - far enough in advance of meetings to permit/encourage participation? Or are they distributed last minute, AT the meeting?

  • Are minutes to public meetings made readily available, in a timely fashion? Or are they distributed months later, when the information they contain is no longer relevant or needed?

    Complete minutes of the Dobbs Ferry Planning Board meeting of May 2nd (during which the 'public hearing' for the Virginia Avenue development was held) were not available for the June 4th meeting of that body. Indeed, they were not available until the day of the June 27th meeting (at which time the subdivision proposal was approved)!

  • Is it made difficult to obtain relevant documents from local government sources? Must citizens resort to filing e a 'Freedom of Information Act' request in order to acquire information that should be a simple matter of public record? Why has it been so hard for Dobbs Ferry citizens to obtain public documents - such as copies of the Master Plan - from the Village?

  • Are meetings conducted in an open manner, which facilitates full disclosure of relevant information? For example, despite questions posed by residents at a Dobbs Ferry Planning Board meeting about who was responsible for development planning in the village, the residents who asked such questions were not informed that a major portion of the Planning Board's 'planning' powers and responsibilities derive from the 'Site Plan Review' process; or that the Planning Board had no intention of doing a Site Plan Review in the case of the Virginia Avenue development.

  • Are meetings conducted in a way that promotes -

    • the hearing of all points of view on important matters,
    • the processing of conflicting information and perspectives, and
    • the creation of a full spectrum of alternative options, from which decision-makers can make a REAL choice?

  • Is input and decision-making inclusive, or do the decision-making processes in place encourage a few selected individuals to make the important decisions in advance of public meetings?

3. Inclusive Development Planning

Do planning efforts in Dobbs Ferry encourage strong citizen involvement?

  • Are ALL stakeholders informed when a development project is proposed?

  • Are neighbors invited to participate in the planning process at a stage that is early enough to have an effect on the outcome?

    Why are residents not adequately informed of neighborhood development proposals when they are first proposed? One hears this question asked repeatedly at Board of Trustee meetings and meetings of the Planning Board. Each time the concern is voiced by a new face, a resident caught off guard by a development project that presents itself as a done deal by the time he finds out about it.

    Why, in this age of the internet, is there no email list that a resident of Dobbs Ferry can subscribe to which will inform her/him of possible development projects when these are first proposed?

    Why are neighbors not included in the early 'round table' talks that bring public servants and developers together in Dobbs Ferry to discuss new development proposals?

  • When involvement does occur, what kind of involvement is it? Is participation limited to 'public hearings' - which are typically structured in such a way that

    • input is limited and discussion and/or debate is actively discouraged;
    • there is no opportunity to participate in the crafting of reasonable alternatives; and
    • there are no mechanisms through which neighbors might share in making the decisions that directly and profoundly effect them.

    In the case of the Virginia Avenue development project, the Planning Board in essence abdicated its responsibility - handing the decision-making power vested in it by code over to the developer to unilaterally do whatever it was in his best financial interest to do. The neighborhood, which sought only to have development follow reasonable guidelines - such as the ones delineated in 'Site Plan Review' section of the Code - was disempowered.

4. Responsibility and Accountability

Is the Village government structured in such a way as to clearly identify in whom the responsibility for development planning ultimately resides? Who, amongst the various elected and appointed officials in Dobbs Ferry, hold themselves accountable for initiating development planning processes that are rational, transparent, and inclusive? The Mayor? The Trustees? The Planning Board?

In the case of the Virginia Avenue development project, the Mayor and most of the Trustees seemed less than eager to grapple with the issue of an old, perhaps unadopted, and apparently somewhat outdated master plan. They were only too eager to pass the buck to the Planning Board. But members of the Planning Board felt that they were not responsible for the kind of planning that neighbors were asking for - planning that would ensure that development would be orderly and safe and take place in such a way that what is built does not destroy the neighborhood by failing to conform with its present character and needs. They sent neighbors back to the Board of Trustees. And so residents bounced back and forth between these two entities of local government - getting neither satisfaction nor relief from either.

Who, then, IS in charge of planning in Dobbs Ferry?

The developers, apparently. Let the developers, said the Planning Board Chair, in a statement that astounded residents present at the June 27th meeting, make the decisions about what is to be built on Virginia Avenue - guided in their decisions by personal profit.