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  • Arne Mortensen

What do you want from the Planning Commission?

On the 16th of March, 2022, the Board of Commissioners of Cowlitz County (BoCC) met in a "sort-of" joint session with the Cowlitz County Planning Commission (PC). The purpose of the meeting was for the BoCC to answer/discuss issues with the PC.

Brief Background: Cowlitz County has a Comprehensive Plan (CP) in which land usage and such constraints are specified. Building activity must comply with the CP or the CP must be amended. Building tracts of homes and subdivisions also go through an extensive process that involves getting permits from the Cowlitz County Building and Planning Department (PD). Before a development can appear before the BoCC, the planning commission must render an opinion in the form of a recommendation for the BoCC, which must then allow or disallow the development.

Because the PC, which is comprised of volunteer citizens representing the various parts of the county, the BoCC relies very heavily on the PC's recommendation.

The Joint Meeting: The Chairman of the BoCC opened the meeting and began to address the questions/requests of the PC to clarify current issues or consider new issues. For this blog entry I focus only on the request to consider replacing the current PC with a Regional Planning commission comprised of the county and the cities.

However, there is a noteworthy digression to summarize two of the comments from two members of the PC:

  • There was a lament that the CP did not contain language about voluntary Neighborhood Associations. I only can assume that the speaker believes that voluntary relationships must be defined by the government. Since when does an American need permission to work with their neighbor in a mutually cooperative endeavor?

  • Another one commented that only the government could solve problems. I guess the history of government control to produce good and desired results has been scrubbed.

About Regional Planning: The suggestion is to form a planning commission comprised of the current municipal and county planning commissions. The belief is that issues of growth will be managed better by this much larger committee because the committee will have a full view of all the issues and, therefore, can arrive at an optimal plan. This idea is reminiscent of the Soviet Union five years plans, an approach that led to the demise of the Soviet Union.

  • We already accept that groups of citizens come together to form cities; these are the atomical elements of planning. Is not this regional planning akin to merging the cities into a unit of disparate entities? We could not get the cities of Kelso and Longview to merge … presumably because they had different ideas about their cities. There is no reason to think that a central planning commission would be able to address the atomical issues.

  • Would a regional planning commission not lead to a tyranny of the majority? We are a republic, not a democracy. Why should Woodland have more than a neighborly advisory role to Castle Rock?

  • There is nothing at all that prevents the cities and the county from keeping each other informed about issues. There is nothing that keeps the cities and county from cooperating on goals, which is something they would do cooperatively if the issue in question was mutually acceptable. There are plenty of examples of this cooperation already taking place.

  • Via decentralization the US has achieved a high level of diversity and consequent accomplishment. We revel in the differences between the charms of, say, the South and New England. The more we seek centralization of power/control, the more we become sterile and ineffective. Our entire nation is a collection of states, with no (original) thought of more than cooperation between them.

  • And there are practical issues:

  • What is the makeup of this committee? Do cities get equal votes regardless of size (like US Senate)?

  • Anyone with any experience at all knows that committees beyond a very few people get mired with non-sequiturs or disparate interests, causing productivity to be woefully weak.

My Expectation of the Planning Commission: I am disturbed by what I see generally overtaking our country. We are replacing common sense and judgement by prescriptions that cannot possibly provide more than guidelines to be used in specific circumstances.

If the planning commission sees itself as simply checking the boxes, then I see no need for them, except as a source for free labor. Furthermore, if the work is prescriptive then there is no reason for the planning commission to take a vote on anything.

To argue that we MUST follow the rules, even if we think that the conclusion is wrong is a recipe for disaster.

  • This country was made great in part because it did not follow the rules of England, even though they were supposed to do so.

  • The Nuremberg Trials memorialized the concept that following orders is not an excuse for doing something stupid.

  • Decisions are not black and white. Each decision has an upside and a downside specific to the circumstances. Only humans can weigh risks versus stakes.

  • There are NO prescriptive solutions. We each must stand by our decisions; to say we have no choice is unacceptable.

  • The suggestion that the rules are prescriptive evidently is wrong:

  • Some of the rules invoke studies, and these studies have their own failures or uncertainties. Treating, say, the traffic studies by “professionals” as sacrosanct is not right. The planning commission is to judge everything, just like a juror in a trial. The reason that the planning commission is valuable is because they have specific real world experience of situations that pencil out only on a paper model. Modeling has its limitations.

  • How do those who advocate the iron embrace of rules explain why variances exist? Why do they accept the concept that the planning commission is a voting body? How do they explain why we have representation by district?

  • Did any of you vote on these rules? These rules are passed down most often from unelected agencies. We must treat them with respect, but not absolute respect. People in Olympia do not necessarily have proper perspective.

A county commissioner is not capable of deciding for the people the look or feel like of their community; that is for the people to decide! I want from the Planning Commission thoughtful recommendations that reflect the flavor of the quality of life they are trying to keep in their community. The BoCC can help deal with the rules and can help determine the balance of property rights. By now, you all know that I am a strong proponent of property rights, but not to the extent that I ignore the impact of one neighbor on the other. That, again, is why each of us must be a judge and provide guidance encumbered only by a good faith effort to balance competing individual rights and regulations.

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