Sunday, June 14, 2009

Wake up and smell the comprehensive plan

It seems that it's comprehensive plan season, with both the town and the village looking at the master plan which should be guiding all of our planning and zoning decisions.

The last time the village's master plan was updated, the zoning was never actually changed to conform to the new plan, so it didn't do much good. The town's plan isn't really cut out to deal with the types of development pressures we've seen in recent years, notwithstanding the Great Recession that we're now enjoying.

I don't know if surveys were in vogue when either plan was last updated, but they certainly are now. Margaret Human expressed in this week's paper that the town's process is hampered by the reliance on surveys. Meanwhile, the group looking at whether or not they are actually an official body that's been charged with looking at the master plan is debating the role that surveys should play in the village's process.

I can understand how statistical modeling can make it viable to gather data from large numbers of people, such as during the census. Using a questionnaire can also be useful to standardize responses so that they can be analyzed meaningfully. Statistics have their purpose, but if they're given undue weight in a community this size, they could do more harm than good.

The trouble with a survey is that the questions, to a large degree, presuppose the possible answers. A group of a half a dozen or so volunteers, no matter how talented, shouldn't be burdened with coming up with truly fair questions, and I have no faith in an outside consultant capturing the breadth of New Paltz.

Public input into these processes should not be limited to that sort of questioning - it's important for people to have other ways to express opinions. I think the best public participation comes from really controversial public hearings, such as the one on Crossroads (cue "where are they now?" music).

Most public hearings aren't even attended by crickets, so it's important to highlight the potential dangers of comprehensive plan updates. People who do not come and speak at these public hearings will not have any say in changes that could include:
  • Severely limiting your rights to develop your land as you see fit.
  • Endangering the wetlands and sensitive natural habitats.
  • Keeping out businesses that will keep our taxes down.
  • Letting in excessive commercial development that could lower property values.
  • Taking of your land in all but name.
  • Turning New Paltz into another Long Island mall town.
Extreme? Sure. But language like that will bring out interested people from all perspectives, and guarantee the level of participation that Margaret would like to see - a heck of a lot more than the usual suspects.

By all means, do some surveying, but don't give the information to the politicians and don't trust the figures if they feel wrong in your gut.

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