Saturday, December 10, 2011

Development and Democracy Revisited 1 of 2

In looking at how regions grow and develop, it becomes apparent that there are many factors that play into the final decision. It is not an equation where a little bit of activism plus some economic muscle plus a willing electorate equates to a well informed decision based on science and consensus. It’s not even a more complex equation with division, derivatives, and Greek letters.

In the case of a local region, the decision making process for how a region grows is as unruly as the individuals who are affected. Sure, there is a baseline of information and rules that everyone lives under. And it is taken for granted that certain institutional bodies will have a certain amount of power over the final decision. And of course there are the political leanings of the region as a whole. But those elements must be taken apart and analyzed to see areas of commonality and what is truly unique about local governance and how a region develops.

In general there is usually a regional body that has varying degrees of power over local governments (county, city, town, neighborhood, special districts like utilities) and very often complementary special governments that serve a supplementary regional management function.

All of these bodies have governing documents and limiting regulations that ultimately create the legal processes for how an actor will grow in a region. These rules are pretty cookie-cutter; policies that favor certain organizations or interests have to be perceived as legitimate and fair so there are few codified ways in which to tip the playing field to the advantage of one party or the other.

The most typical ways to restrict access of an actor to political recourse are through funding, jurisdiction, and public recourse. Funding goes many ways, but the crux of it is that as a very general rule actors have to pay to play. These can come in the form of campaign donations, marketing, staff funding, institutional funding, and on into infinity. The truth of the American Democracy is that it supports a capitalist economy and monetary transactions play a huge part in the game. Funding also comes in the form of allocations from the government to organizations or policies.

King County and Seattle both have extensive numbers of contracts for all sorts of projects that they need done. A specific line-item for them is public involvement and facilitation. King County and Seattle have found that having a facilitator and extensive public education campaigns as line items lowers costs in the long-run and ensures that all interested parties can have a say. The two entities do this for public works projects coming directly through their agency and for private developments as well. While not perfect, this gives diverse interests an opportunity to shape the final decisions of the outcome using well-established and effective methods of communication. Obviously the problem is that setting aside extra funding for a specialist in facilitation and public involvement is a difficult prospect for smaller governments or ones that do not see the need in such an action. The presence of funding from private entities and the presence of public funds for actors can be seen as an institutional barrier or advantage to specific agendas.

Funding also plays out in allocation. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) has $160 million at its disposal annually to affect how the area grows and develops. If a local entity approves a development outside the urban growth area (UGA) that exceeds the densities allowed on rural land, the PSRC can withhold some or all of the sum that would be disbursed to that local entity. The PSRC thus has the funding to back their policies and outlook on the future.

Jurisdiction is another way common way to tip the scales for a specific actor or interest group. While interviewing key players that shaped the Reno/Tahoe Region's growth a common answer I heard was, “I can't do that. I would love to do this, but I don't have the authority to.” In essence, while there were many regional governing bodies and several regional documents the lack of specifically delegated authority, or a veto power, left development largely to the whims of whoever could get approved. And almost everything got approved; it was a scenario where, unless something was explicitly illegal, special circumstances could always be found to approve of a development.

To tie this in with my previous point, the regional laws did not specifically say that entities were not allowed to do something; in fact there was a great deal of room left in those documents for any of the governing bodies to reject a proposal. The lack of authority stemmed not just a legal argument, but a monetary and political one as well. Developers were one of the main industries of the region as well as one of the main campaign contributors to local candidates. Having developers as contributors could increase a local candidate's war chest by a factor of ten. It was in the interests of elected officials to maintain a favorable relationship with developers as well as an easy way to dismiss concerned citizens while staying blame-free. “I hear what you are saying and I wish that I could do something, but my hands are tied, the developer did everything right and we must say yes.”

By contrast, Portland Metropolitan has what are considered the strictest regional governing documents in the country. Local governments must comply to developing within the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). The UGB is a far stricter line than the UGAs of Reno/Tahoe or King County. The UGB is a nearly visible line; in the Portland Metro area, the line between rural and urban development is stark. The houses simply end and farmland or forest stretch past that point. There are special courts set up to deal with perceived infractions to the regional plan and environmental groups are often consulted far in advance of a proposed development going in. I'll speak more about the success of those groups later, but suffice it to say that there is a bright line of jurisdiction in Portland Metro whereas other regions have what can be considered a hazy line dictated by personalities more than long-term institutional goals.

King County is the in between when it comes to jurisdiction. It is a county with a UGA like Reno, but that is subject to fewer changes than Reno because of several factors all relating to jurisdiction. The regional documents are updated periodically and require input from many local bodies or at least to have their interests put in mind. The King County executive acts like a mayor for the county; coordinating the many local governments, special districts, and interest groups in amending and implementing the Growth Management Act (GMA). If interests are unhappy with the GMA or a project under its purview, the interests are allowed several options for recourse similar to Portland. In King County, the sheer number of governing bodies means that the GMA must be amended carefully; there are few instances where something can be steam-rolled through. This makes for a well coordinated top level of planning, but it leads to a piecemeal policy at the lowest levels. Small governments—local cities in particular—have the ability to set out policies they perceive to be in their best interest and often will approve developments that can exceed the UGA but look nearly identical to a development within the UGA.

That is, however, much better than in the Reno area where three nearly equal main governments merely expand the UGA to fit proposed developments and change their long-term goals to reflect said developments. It isn't a decision made to spite any one group nor is it made to favor groups—at least from the perspective of elected and appointed regional officials. It is, as I said before, borne of a lack of perceived authority (and of course, where the most personal benefit lies for the official).

The third way that the playing field is tipped in favor of certain interests is through public recourse. In Seattle, there are state, regional, and local laws dictating very specific and widespread public notification of potential developments. Developers have to post signs on the proposed site as well as contact a large number of potentially affected parties. Projects are also required to go through several public meeting processes where notification must be sent to local news agencies.

In Reno, public meetings are often seen as an afterthought. This can be traced to the individualist attitude of the state where protection of private property is seen as paramount, “let me do what I want on my land.” Under that attitude it is little wonder that many in the region see non-owners as a nuisance and infringing on the developers. This attitude extends to the elected officials who view a few concerned activists as NIMBY groups who are “anti-growth, which isn't sustainable and isn't good for our economy.” It is common to hear at last minute planning meetings, “I have heard you all say that there are a bunch of you out there who are concerned. My question to you is, where are they?”

Aside from attitudes of specific council members there remains little way for interests other than the primary to access the system to voice their concerns. There is often a short public comment period, and an individual can always try to contact a council member directly to set up an appointment, but there is no special court and there are no large public interest organizations in the area. Citizens and non-developers are effectively locked out of the process.