There are a lot of issues swirling around our area that raise fundamental questions about what we want to be. I have been involved in many of them over the years. Today, it’s natural gas, but a decade ago it was rapid growth. A decade before that it was about gaming and before that it was the designation of the Upper Delaware as a Scenic and Recreational River.
Each issue has sparked intense debate about the future of our area. What all have in common is the need for reasoned discussion that can only occur when there is a framework for balancing views. That’s what planning is all about and we’ve lost sight regarding how to go about it. Too much of our planning is simply political positioning, using its tools as leverage. We see processes that are supposed to be neutral employed as arenas for gladiators or platforms for special interests.
Planning is an essential activity for local government. It always involves three steps: data gathering, goal setting and policy formulation. Implementation, once policies are established, should not involve the reinvention of these but, rather, serve to impartially administer what’s been predetermined. This is the protection each gets from the law, the sole purpose of which is to guard property rights, whether they be the rights of a landowner or the rights of another who’s own enjoyment of property is directly affected by what that landowner does with his or hers.
Planning ahead is intended to strike the bargain prior to the dispute, so there is a mechanism for impartially resolving it according to the law before things get emotional and out-of-hand. Unfortunately, many have it backward today. They view planning tools as weapons in the dispute or an excuse to start over with each new controversy. Readers can surely cite their own examples, so I won’t do so. Rather, I’d just like us to get back to basics.
The basics start with an appreciation for a couple of very simple concepts.
First, land use laws are what are known as derogations of the common law, meaning they intrude on the rights all individuals have to the fruits of their labor, otherwise known as their property. Such rights cannot be taken away without compelling evidence of impacts on others’ rights. The practical effect of this rule is this: when a community’s standards conflict or are vague, the benefit of the doubt must go to the property owner.
The second concept is one we don’t hear nearly enough about anymore. It’s the fact that land use laws are exercises of the police power. This means coercion. No one likes coercion. No one wants a police state. Yet, some policing is essential to a civil society.
Anyone focusing on these concepts begins to appreciate why the law is such a serious matter and why planning, as opposed to reactionary policy constructed on-the-fly, is so critical. We must get back to it and use our planning tools to study and understand our communities. We must also get serious with our goals. They need to be focused on the future, not the present. We need to plan for the needs of future residents, not the wants of present ones. It’s difficult, but that’s why we do data gathering – so we know where we are headed and what’s coming. Finally, we must craft policies – based on that data and those goals – that at least attempt to resolve the big issues in advance of our disputes. That’s what planning is. The alternative is unending controversy and chaos or, worse, a police state.
[Thomas J. Shepstone is the sole principal of Shepstone Management Company, Inc., a planning and research consulting firm headquartered in Honesdale, PA with expertise in land use planning and zoning, environmental assessments, market research and analysis, economic development planning, traffic studies and more. He is also a consultant, and the campaign director for Energy in Depth Marcellus, www.eidmarcellus.org.]