Wednesday, February 13, 2008

From the February Issue of CONA

Why neighborhoods need better community planning in Sarasota County
by Ron Collins (Bee Ridge Association)

Changing the future land use or zoning on a parcel of land almost always pits David against Goliath. The landowner or option holding developer is usually deep pocketed and stands to receive a substantial gain if the change is approved. In the other corner is usually a large but loosely connected group of neighbors, each with only a small individual economic incentive to oppose the change. Modern economic theory holds that a large group of loosely connected citizens, each with small economic incentives, cannot successfully compete against an individual (or small group of) actor(s) with large economic incentives.

Even when the neighborhood group has sufficient economic resources to effectively compete with the development community, the playing field is tilted away from them. Neighborhoods groups have a difficult time finding local land use professionals that are willing to help them. Some professionals have a conflict of interest because they have recently represented or currently represent member of the development team.

Others decline because they either hope to represent the development team in the future or they do not wish to become known as antagonistic toward the development community.

Our group recently contacted over twenty transportation engineering firms located from Miami to Atlanta to help us review a transportation concurrency study before we found one that would.

Without balanced economic incentives and equal access to professional assistance, good ideas from the public cannot compete effectively against the private desires of the development community.

Planning staff spends most of their days reviewing rezoning proposals in close contact with the development community. The planners know their job is to serve the customer, who they most often see as the development team that brings the rezoning proposal to the agency. In fact, the quality of customer service delivered to development teams along with number of approved
rezones processed are often important metrics in a planner’s job performance review. So it is not surprising that the planners’ and development community’s interest tend to align over time.

Additionally, most planner contacts with the development community are with land use attorneys, transportation engineers, site planners, architects, environmental consultants, and other experts that the planners identify with as peer professionals, which further strengthen their bond.

Those experiences sharply contrast with the planners’ typical contact with the public. Dealing with inexperienced and uninformed citizens can be a burdensome distraction for the planners.

These encounters with the public tend to reinforce the alignment of the planners’ sympathies and interests with those of the development communities.

Our group recently tried to call planners’ attention to factual errors and rezoning petition deficiencies during a recent pre-hearing sufficiency review. Our attempts to present this information were rejected by several staff members who told us our efforts were simply antigrowth NIMBYism. After we presented our evidence at the Planning Commission Public Hearing, staff investigated our concerns, found them to be valid and scrambled to revise their recommendations prior to the Board of County Commissioners Public Hearing.

When the interests of government planning staff and those of the development community converge, the public suffers a great competitive disadvantage

[CONA is the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations - Sarasota County]

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