Disconnect between theory and reality in master plan
January 17, 2012
Douglas County’s awkward relationship with its master plan continues. County commissioners recently approved the 2011 Master Plan update. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much. Nothing important changed.
So what’s the problem? Well, there’s a significant disconnect between theory and reality, the plan being theory as opposed to the reality of what’s actually going to happen here.
Fundamentally, a master plan is about how to grow. It’s most basic calculation is the determination of the future size of the community. From that you determine the mix of land uses, where to locate them and how to serve them. And then how best to manage the impacts of all that.
Douglas County has never done a good job of answering that fundamental question of how large it will grow. And that failure undermines governance here, and our economy.
In 2004 I met with then County Manager Dan Holler. He thought the county would double in size, from about 50,000 to 100,000 people. Not my sense of a realistic future here.
Later I came across the Master Plan Annual Report. A little quick math using the data there showed we’d put zoning in place to accommodate a population of well over 100,000. Thought had led to action. Yikes!
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Then I discovered the Nevada State Demographer, who performs detailed analyses of population trends and makes projections based not on what people want to happen or think might happen, but on what the economy will actually support. His average projection over the past decade: 60,000 people here, just one fifth the growth the County was planning. His most recent estimate: 54,000.
So we have planned and zoned for roughly twice the population and five times the growth that we’re likely to have. Pure speculation. Simply put, we’ve spread ourselves too thin.
We have a huge excess of land zoned for development that undermines our real estate and commercial economies. We have extensive infrastructure plans designed to serve development that will never occur. And the look of abandonment in many areas of incomplete development.
Worst of all, many agencies and private investors take master plans seriously when making important decisions. Has the false picture of growth we’ve painted been instrumental in some of the more divisive proposals here (Muller Parkway, Riverwood, Minden Gateway, Walmart, Peri/Matley Ranch)?
Despite past mistakes, our master plan remains the best tool for addressing the situation we now face. The 2011 update presented an opportunity to do that, an opportunity not taken.
The update acknowledges the Demographer’s projection. But also includes its own, which simply takes growth over the past decade and projects it to continue at the same pace, leading to a population of 65,000 by 2030. That ignores the reality that, most recently, our population has actually declined, 6 percent from 2007 to 2010. And the update presents no analysis to support its projection.
The update then goes on to rely on its projection to suggest that there is a “demand” for as many as 7,000 additional housing units here over the next 20 years. And, most importantly, does nothing to “scale back” past over-planning.
This strikes me as “pretending” that we are still on our way to that 100,000 person future, so no need to make any changes, when all credible evidence is to the contrary.
Population is driven by employment. In the early 2000s we built a development economy, which has now vanished. Despite renewed attention to economic development, and the perpetual optimism of self-serving boosters, the prospects for future job growth remain limited.
We have 49,000 people and 18,000 jobs here. That’s 2.7 persons per job. To get to the population of 100,000 that we’ve been planning for we’d need to add 19,000 jobs, more than we currently have. Not going to happen.
Frankly, with the disappearance of our development economy and the decline of gaming, and despite our efforts to refocus on outdoor recreation, I think the Demographer is right: little job growth for the foreseeable future. We’ll be lucky to add the 1,850 jobs needed to support just his most recent growth projection of 54,000.
The growth debate that was so intense 5-10 years ago is over. There will be only limited growth here. The issue now is management. How are we going to manage in the new circumstances we face?
Now that the boom has gone bust and our future is clear, we should quit using our master plan to perpetuate a fantasy, and start using it as a tool to get a firm grip on reality and what to do in the face of it.
How might we go about that?
The first step is to better understand the problems we face. Prepare a “parallel” plan for a population of 60,000. That’s the demographer’s current estimate plus 10 percent, a reasonable basis for planning that would correlate with 4,000 added jobs, a sufficient challenge I think.
Then compare that with the “100,000 plan” we have now. The differences would represent the “over-planning” we’ve indulged in. We could then embark on a process of examining those differences in detail and deciding what to do about the problems they present.
Yes, that will be hard. Some will say impossible, so no point in trying. That’s nonsense. We won’t be able to fix every problem, but communities all over the country come up with innovative and feasible land use and management strategies every day.
That starts with facing up to reality instead of wishing it away. The reality is that we’ll be lucky to see limited growth over the next twenty years, probably beyond, and we’ll certainly not see the doubling of population we’ve planned for.
Finally, coalescing around realistic, data-driven projections and goals for growth, and plans and permitting consistent with that, would mean less controversy here. We’ve spent a lot of time arguing about over-blown growth that was never going to happen. Why not put that energy into managing together the limited growth that will?
Terry Burnes is a Gardnerville resident and former Bay Area planner.