Entitlement empowers voters, but does it improve the planning process

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clemIn the old days the Planning Boards and Boards of Zoning Appeal were deliberately created to avoid the politicalization of land use decisions. Elected officials knew that planning and zoning decisions had “winners” and “losers”, and they did not want to incur the wrath of any constituent group; accordingly, the planning boards members were appointed and were supposed to provide a “neutral” or “professional” opinion. The composition of the boards almost always had professionals with relevant experience in addition to neighborhood folk.

Nowadays, citizen participation has empowered voters and transformed land use decisions to become totally political. The change coincides with what David Clem, a former elected official, planner and biotech developer, calls a dramatic deterioration in the quality of the professional staff in planning departments. The combination does not always bode well for decision-making.

This philosophy (at least in my experience) began to deteriorate in the 60’s and 70’s as people challenged the status quo and the establishment way of doing things. Planners began to promote citizen participation and participatory planning and advocacy planning lost failure to the notion that everyday voters, with no particular expertise or experience had equal standing.
To accept otherwise was to be an “elitist”. The sense of entitlement that so permeates everything today has empowered voters; land use decisions have become totally political; the reality of planning and legislating for a common good over a sustained period has been forgotten in the battles of the moment. The quality of the professional staff in planning departments has deteriorated dramatically in my career; many departments pursue their own political agenda without the mandate of a popular vote.

In spite of technological advances that would allow professionals to quantify public opinion quite readily, there is rarely any effort to do so. Small groups can distort the process; self interest triumphs over civic interest; and the environment for claiming broadbased, “neighborhood” support” has become fuzzy. This makes for good sausage, but not necessarily good policy.

David Clem is former elected official, planner, advocate, neighborhood activist, and developer of several million square feet of biotech lab space and mixed use. He is also a member of the Saint Consulting Group Board of Directors.

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