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HOW EFFECTIVE ARE COMPREHENSIVE PLANS?
To a great degree the effectiveness of the plan depends on the degree of commitment by the municipal government and the citizens to the plan. If the municipal government and the citizens are committed to the goals of the plan, then the power of government to raise money, to spend money, and to use the municipality's powers to control land use can be used to move toward the vision embodied in the plan. This is the situation in many municipalities. But in other municipalities, commitment to the plan may be less solid. The plan may exist on paper, but little will be done to make it come to pass. In the extreme, the plan may just be a pro forma document that exists because the state requires every municipality to have an adopted comprehensive plan or because having a plan is a requirement for state or federal grant programs in which the municipality is interested.
Some municipalities are in a stronger position to stick to a plan than are others. A prosperous municipality that has an adequate tax base will have both the funds to make the public investments that support the plan and also the ability to reject development that clearly contravenes the plan. A poor municipality may find that it simply does not have the fiscal capacity to make the investments required to implement the plan. A combination of a weak tax base and high unemployment may put it in the position of being unable to turn away any proposed development, even if that development contravenes the intentions of the plan.
Where there is little growth to be channeled and directed, the plan may be relatively ineffectual. At the other extreme, if economic forces beyond the control of the municipality are making the place grow at a very rapid rate, it may be very hard for the planners and the municipal government to stay ahead of the game and stick to the comprehensive plan. The crisis of the day will crowd out everything else.
At the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century North Dakota began to experience an economic boom based on oil and natural gas. The unemployment rate dropped to the lowest level of any of the states, workers poured in from great distances, and the state experienced an extreme shortage of housing, as well as serious shortfalls in public facilities, public services, and development infrastructure. Then, in 2015, energy prices dropped sharply, there was a glut of oil and natural gas, employment in those industries fell, and the situation quickly reversed itself. When a city, country, or state is whipsawed like that by events beyond its control or anticipation, speed may be more important than optimization, and comprehensive planning will take a back seat to getting things done as quickly as possible.
Unpredictable events may have a major effect on whether the vision in the plan comes to pass. For example, a county develops a comprehensive plan and sticks to it for a while. At this point a major investor acquires a large block of land and draws up a design for a planned community (see Chapter 7). The plan looks good to the municipality in terms of land use and economic and fiscal impact. But it requires rezoning of a substantial part of the county and thus scrapping major parts of the comprehensive plan. In short order, the plan is subjected to a major rewrite. Comparable scenarios could readily be suggested for other major commercial development or large facilities constructed by higher levels of government. Prediction is basic to any long-term plan, and life is unpredictable.
Some populations are fundamentally more supportive of planning than are others. In the writer's observation, college towns are often quite supportive of planning. Their educated and economically well-off—albeit not rich— populations seem to be comfortable with it and often take a great interest in it.
The overall political stance of the population is very important. As suggested in Chapter 5, where the boundary between the rights of private property and the rights of the public, considered as a whole, should lie is an ideological question, or, to put it another way, a right-left question. Thus the overall political complexion of the population will have an effect on how much or how little the body politic thinks it ought to plan.
In brief, then, the plan reflects the community from which it springs. There is as much variation in plans and in their effectiveness as there is among places themselves. In Chapter 19 we discuss some alternative approaches to the comprehensive planning approach and the pros and cons thereof.
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