Citizen participation benefits planning process

Guest Post by Martin Jeter

The county has been busy for the past year or so with the process of setting the new direction for growth in Prince William through the revision of the Comprehensive Plan, but have ordinary residents really been heard from and made a key part of the process?

Two “citizen” committees – the Land Use Advisory (LUAC) and the Mobility Committee – were formed to make recommendations to the Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) on the Comprehensive Plan. Although the idea of allowing normal citizens of the county to make recommendations on the future of the county is always a good idea, but as usual, the devil is in the details.Often, committee membership tends to be biased towards the development community by over representation with those employed by or related to the development industry, and the LUAC was a perfect example of this.

This bias has the predictable result of proposals such as those floated by members of the LUAC to remove 300 acres from the rural crescent and more than double the housing density in the mid-county area. Both of these proposals were introduced by members of the committee who would derive direct financial benefit from the changes, and were at least initially approved by a majority of the committee members. This was in spite of the fact that the same proposal to increase density in mid-county was made five years ago by the same folks and met with overwhelming community disapproval.

Another problem with the process is the lack of adequate citizen participation. This is partly due to the issue above, but also to public meeting scheduling problems, and the lack of citizen access to plans in progress. For example, the Planning Commission public hearing for the Comprehensive Plan is scheduled for two days after the Labor Day holiday, when many folks are distracted by back-to-work/back-to-school issues.

But even if folks do somehow find the time to participate, proposed changes and plans aren’t available to residents until a few days before the meeting. Many conversations and meetings happen between the Planning Commission members and planning staff, the Planning Commission and BOCS, the BOCS members and planning staff, etc., and plans progress that residents and even other Planning Commission and BOCS members aren’t privy to. By the time the public hearing happens, plans are often pretty much already solidified.

What’s needed to improve the process for better citizen participation:

1. Advisory committees that are truly made up of citizens without direct financial interest in the subject at hand. This doesn’t mean there can’t be anyone with a “hint” of development interest, only that the committee shouldn’t be controlled by any one faction.
2. As plans are discussed and marked-up by county staff, the Planning Commission, and the BOCS, they should be available on the county website to residents so they can follow along.
3. Allow time for residents to speak at the end of Planning Commission and BOCS work sessions. This way, residents can comment directly on what happened during the session.
4. Schedule work sessions/public hearings on important issues such as the Comprehensive Plan when it’s convenient for folks to attend.

With these adjustments the process will be made much more accessible to residents, and the final product is always improved with more public participation. We don’t have to keep repeating past mistakes!


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