Saturday, December 1, 2007

Wisdom of a Comprehensive Plan

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.

As I struggled to understand Mr. Lowry admonishing the county to “not get too hung up on a comprehensive plan” (among a few other statements), the words of Lewis Caroll sprung into my mind. As they did it hit me, that similar to the “Jabberwocky”, the only way to make sense of nonsensical lyricism is to accept that it’s not supposed to. I’m not sure there is any other way to interpret a statement that implies that the Ellis County Zoning and Planning board shouldn’t have a plan to guide their zoning decisions.

If you have spent any time in or around any organization, you probably know the difference between vision, goals and objectives. Vision gives you direction, goals give you specificity to achieve the vision and objectives outline specific actions necessary to reach the goal.

Similarly, a comprehensive plan quantifies the vision and outlines specific goals for the community. The zoning regulations give the specific actions needed to reach those goals and thereby achieve that vision. You can engage in all the action you want, but until it is guided by a vision and goals, those actions may or may not serve your best interest.

It may well be true that in Kansas the comprehensive plan has no specific statutory authority. However, it does not then imply that a plan is unnecessary. Many states wisely require a detailed comprehensive plan prior to adopting zoning regulations. In most of the other states (Kansas included) a community takes a higher risk for judicial intervention if they have zoning without a comprehensive plan (Golden v. City of Overland Park).

As Lorraine A. Cortés-Vázquez, the New York secretary of state put it; The comprehensive plan is insurance that the zoning ordinance is reasonable and “bears a reasonable relation between the end sought to be achieved by the regulation and the means used to achieve that end.”

Right now, we don’t have an agreed upon notion of what the “end sought” vision for zoning is in Ellis County, because we don’t have a comprehensive plan. If our vision of zoning is "to protect agriculture" as it has been mentioned numerous times by the Zoning and Planning Board, then we need a comprehensive plan to quantify what that means and set specific goals by which we hope to achieve that end. Then and only then does it make sense to set specific courses of action or zoning rules by which to meet those goals. Without the vision and goals, we cannot hope to have specific enough objectives or rules to accomplish what we want (whatever that is). In other words, one cannot hope to interpret or accomplish the letter of the law, without understanding the spirit of it.

Without a comprehensive plan, the vision for the community is dependent on the individual commissioners along with the zoning and planning board members at any given time. The rules and the application of them are therefore guided more by personal interest, bias and politics of the moment than upon a guiding vision set by the community at large. Imagine if the United States of America were only guided by a series of laws passed by the legislature. Without the guiding vision of a constitution, there is no set vision for our country, no stability over time and no protection from the whims of individual government leaders. Ultimately, we owe our success as a country more to our constitution than to our individual laws.

Community development is a long complicated journey. I for one want a clear sense of where I’m going, why and how I want to go there BEFORE I just start walking. In the end, the investment in this process will pay exponential dividends in time, effort, resources and outcomes. It is only rational to assume that our community would want the same thoughtful process to guide us.

As a result, I’m assuming that Mr. Lowry’s suggestion was not intended to be rational. That being the case, though Carrols “Jabberwocky” is typically regarded as the greatest nonsense poem ever penned in the English language, the editorial in the 11-30-07 edition of the HDN has to be a close second.

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