Friday, February 25, 2005

Small-town Planning Problems

I’d like to get some comments on planning for growth in a rural, small (i.e., wide-spot-in-the-road) town.

Our town went through 200 years of a 6-fold population growth, shrinkage and regrowth, characterized by agricultural and then industrial development and abandonment. The now-departed agriculture and industry brought about significant changes in the landscape. The result is a much-appreciated rural and recreational character to the town. The present residents like it so much that they are set on putting a stop to the processes that brought it about. To that end, a traditional zoning ordinance was adopted about 25 years ago. The resulting pattern of development is one of widely scattered individual homes, a diminished sense of community, and little practical incentive or welcome for any commercial enterprise.

How do we spark support for a new approach? Officials in small towns are apt to be part-time volunteers who lack both training and current knowledge in the good and bad aspects of planning. We rely on, but are skeptical of, the traditional zoning methods that were developed for cities and suburbs. Advice is available on request from regional agencies, but it comes at infrequent formal sessions, and it can sometimes be in the doctor-patient relationship of “Don’t prescribe anything that the patient doesn’t want to hear about.” The tradition of citizen input is strong, but very unevenly distributed throughout the population of the town, and usually consists of public hearings where the citizens are asked to speak their minds before they have had a good opportunity to become informed of all the aspects of the issues. I’d like to see some of our citizens (planning board members, at least) begin to make use of web logs like this. Then, when they have a question or an argument, they might get rapid and varied perspectives on their question from other web log users.
Terry McMahon, vice chair,
Stoddard, NH Planning Board.