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As Long as We Remember...

July 14, 2004

End of the Line Approaching! So Pay Attention!

Alan Imhoff

Recently I attended a City of Frederick Planning Commission workshop on a small section of the proposed draft of the new Comprehensive Plan. What I experienced leaves me wondering if the city will ever get through the process and how many citizens will be involved.

Before I go on, for those who may not know, I was vice chairman of the City Planning Commission for all five years of my term that ended last September. My professional background is in project management and I have been volunteering in the county for almost 20 years in a variety of planning activities, with an emphasis on long-range planning.

The most serious problem I experienced at the workshop was the lack of citizen attendance. After you take away the Planning Department staff (6 members), other city staff and the mayor (4 people), the press (1 person), a county employee who resides in the city who also had a vested interest in the topic for the evening, individuals who may have been representing firms in the construction industry (3 people), there were two of us "citizens" there, a former mayor and myself.

The subjects listed on the web site for the evening were Transportation and Community Facilities. For both of these I would have expected a better turnout. Everyone complains endlessly about how bad the roads are and Community Facilities includes such current hot topics as water and sewer, as well as police service among others.

So where was everyone who has been complaining?

The city's answers are to be included in this guideline for the next 20 years. Wouldn't you think more than the handful of non-employees would be there? With 12 Neighborhood Advisory Councils you might think there should be at least 12 citizen representatives in attendance to hear what the proposed solutions for transportation and community facilities.

So what was accomplished that evening?

First, only 3 members of the Planning Commission were in attendance for the whole two hours. A fourth member showed up near the end.

Second, a planning staff member chaired the workshop and proceeded to read verbatim most of the 16 page section entitled Transportation Element to the commission members. Commission members did ask some questions, which in turn were answered by other members of the planning staff, oftentimes at quite some length over minute examples.

Third, the "public" was allowed a few minutes of questions or comments at the end. As I found out from someone in attendance, the last half hour is reserved for "public comment." No interaction is allowed during the recitation of the readable material.

So what is my point?

The City of Frederick 1995 Comprehensive Plan was to have been updated in 2001, a six-year requirement under state law. It is now 2004 and with any kind of luck, it will be adopted early in 2005.

While I was a member of the commission, we did request and were granted a one-year extension as the county was completing their Frederick Regional Plan for the same time frame and the commission believed our update would benefit from that plan.

The current process is now over two years old, is not complete, and has cost the taxpayers a lot. So where are they at these meetings?

As a guide to development, any comprehensive plan sets out general goals and objectives to achieve, generally over a 20-year time frame. What sort of goals and objectives take over two years to articulate?

Could it be that the "process" to include the public, by design and execution actually inhibits participation due to its extremely slow way of collecting information, then having a third party interpret it?

Where are all the 20-some members of the Steering Committee who helped in this process? Where are all the members of the various subcommittees who worked on the various elements of this proposed draft?

As a member of the Community Facilities sub-committee, I attended this meeting to question a number of items in the draft that were omitted from the sub-committee recommendations. I'll have to wait, as the time limit did not permit the Planning Commission to hear that element.

While apologies were extended by staff for not communicating the change in a timely manner, I began to question the effectiveness of this process. Will the citizens of the city really be given the opportunity to be involved in a plan that will affect their lives for many years to come, or are we just following a process?

Granted these are workshops for the Planning Commission to review the draft with staff before they must hold public hearings, so maybe the lack of citizen involvement is understandable. But if lack of public attendance at these meetings is any indication, what we will see at the Planning Commission hearings?

After the Planning Commission completes it hearings, the commission must recommend a plan to the mayor and Board of Aldermen, who in turn must hold public hearings. So when will the public be most effective?

The Planning Commission hearings on the Comprehensive Plan, followed by a Zoning Map and a new re-write of the Zoning Ordinance, will be your best chance to be heard on matters that will affect individuals, neighborhoods, communities and the city as a whole. Plan on being at these hearings and let the Planning Commission hear what you have to say on your future.

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