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Where Do We Want to Go?

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“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where –” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. (Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 6).

In our last column (“This Plan’s for You“), we discussed the importance of defining your community’s identity as part of the planning process. The next question a community must ask in developing a comprehensive plan is, “Where do we want to go?” We’ve both been known to paraphrase this conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat when working with communities: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”

Your community’s plan establishes the priorities for development patterns, mixes of land uses, areas that should grow and those that should not. It should provide a framework for determining where and how development best fits. If framed properly, your plan can even recommend limiting the quantity of certain types of business, something Los Angeles implemented in its recent (and controversial) decision to not permit any new fast food franchises.

For any number of reasons, many cities and towns are afraid to turn down development. They fear that development will go somewhere else, taking jobs and local revenue with it, if they don’t accept whatever proposal a developer advances. As planning commissioners, you too may feel like any growth in your community would be good. However, wanting growth does not mean that you have to accept it at any cost.

If your plan articulates your community’s identity and establishes clear-cut goals for future growth, you can work with developers to make sure their plans will mesh with yours. In fact, most developers are interested in fitting into a community — so long as they can clearly understand what you are asking them to do.

There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it.” We’ve seen many communities whose ordinances put so much emphasis on separation of uses and low-density development that they actually require sprawl rather than good and efficient planning and urban design — and sprawl is exactly what they get. It isn’t necessarily that the growth is bad for the community; sometimes it’s that the growth isn’t in the best location, or at the best density, because decision-makers are hesitant to apply the standards that would implement the comprehensive plan.

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