How to get our plans in sync with reality |

How to get our plans in sync with reality

by Terry Burnes

I recently wrote about the mismatch between our plans for growth and the growth that will actually occur here.

We have a population of about 49,000. We’ve put in place plans and zoning to more than double that, yet the most accurate projection of future growth is to only 54,000 over the next 20 years. Recently our population has actually been declining.

So we’ve planned for over twice the population and many times the growth we’ll actually have. This undermines both governance and our economy.

The obvious question is, how might we get our plans in sync with reality?

The first step would be a determination to do that by elected officials. It’s tempting to think, “If we build it they will come.” But that’s what got us here.

Leaders need to be realistic. It serves no one well to grossly over-estimate the future. That undercuts rational decision making. So leaders need to commit to doing something about this.

A second step, that I mentioned in my earlier column, could be to prepare a parallel version of our master plan based on growth to about 60,000 versus the 100,000-plus we’ve planned for in the past. Sixty-thousand is the demographer’s population projection plus about 10 percent, a reasonable, actually fairly aggressive, basis for planning.

I remind those who think that’s too modest that it would take 4,000 additional jobs to support that growth. That’s 20 percent more than we currently have. Anyone who wants to use a higher projection should explain how they will add even more jobs here. Wishing doesn’t count.

And how many added housing units would a “60K plan” involve? At most about 5,000, probably less. Yet existing vacant and approved lots total about 11,000, over twice what we’ll need. And existing unused zoning would allow up to 16,000 more. That’s the measure of our over-planning.

By comparing a 60K plan with our current “100K plan” we could identify the areas where we’ve over-planned and over-approved and the problems that creates, and begin a discussion of what to do about those.

This could also provide a basis for dividing our community into three growth areas. The urban area within the 60K plan would be a “priority growth area.” The area outside that but within some significantly reduced version of our 100K plan would be a “reserve growth area.” The area beyond that would be “rural.”

We could then plan and manage each of those areas differently. Public policy for all government functions would be designed to encourage and support growth in the priority area but prohibit or discourage it in the reserve area until we approach that 60K population. And, of course, the rural area would remain off limits to any intense development.

Additional steps could be taken to drain the excess zoning and project approvals out of the system. First should be a commitment to no further rezonings that increase development potential here. Anyone wanting to “upzone” land in one location should be required to retire a similar or greater amount of zoning elsewhere. And of course any upzonings should be limited to the priority growth area.

The county could also revise its approach to the extension of permit and project approvals. As I said above, we’ll need at most 5,000 new dwellings. We already have over 6,000 vacant recorded lots to build on.

So we actually don’t need any of the 4,700 additional lots that sit in various stages of approval. Many of those projects are going nowhere, but we regularly act to keep them on the books, extending their approvals and keeping them on life support.

This is a kindness to project sponsors but not in the interests of the community as a whole. Projects within the priority growth area might continue to get this treatment but outside that area we should simply extinguish approvals of unbuilt projects whenever possible.

We should also simply terminate the transfer of development rights program. This program, which trades urban development for rural preservation, was well-intentioned at its outset and has accomplished some good in the form of conserved ranch land. But it was captured by development interests during the boom and became less about conservation and more about boosting densities in (unneeded) urban projects.

In the end the price of preventing one house in the rural area was more than 25 extra houses in the urban area. As things stand now the TDR program creates the potential for 14,000 additional units that we can’t possibly use. Simply terminating that program would drain all that unwarranted density out of the hundreds of acres of receiving area we don’t need.

And we could have a serious discussion with land owners and developers about these facts, with the goal of taking a large amount of unneeded zoning off the books.

Land owners can be expected to resist “downzoning” of their properties. But a process of discussion and education about the realities we face might help everyone realize that grossly excessive planning and zoning actually undermine everyone’s position, our entire economy really. It would be in property owners’ interests most of all to get a substantial portion of it off the books and make what remains more realistically useful, and valuable.

We should also reexamine our infrastructure plans to get them in sync with that 60K plan, to reduce future capital expenditures and operational and maintenance costs. One wonders why we are still pursuing Muller Parkway when most of the development it was intended to serve won’t happen and we can’t afford to maintain the roads we have. The same applies to many other aspects of infrastructure here.

There are other things we could do to redirect our planning and governance here to put it on a reality-based footing. Those who say otherwise are simply trying to perpetuate the status quo, which has become untenable.

Note: Data derived from State of Nevada Web sites or Douglas County’s 2011 Master Plan Annual Report.

Terry Burnes is a retired Bay area planner and Gardnerville resident.