This entry starts off with a disclaimer. Our organization, Community Growth Institute, worked as a partner for quite a while to bring about a regional planning project in the Brainerd Lakes area. What resulted is a collaboration between the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, the Region 5 Development Commission and some local planners to study the Gull Lake area.  That we are not a current partner in the project is not the subject or the inspiration for this blog entry, but is a backdrop that needs to be mentioned.

The leadership of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce must be applauded for not only recognizing, but for actually trying to do something, about the fact that regional planning in Central Minnesota has been woefully inept.  This ineptitude has weakened the entire area and, in the process, hurt many of the area's businesses (Chamber members, many).  What is perhaps most remarkable is that the Chamber raised their concerns during times of plenty.  In today's economy, their call for more forethought to the region's development approach has even more credibility.

The Chamber got people who don't often think about planning issues talking and learning.  The results of their efforts was a report with a number of recommendations - some quite worthy - for the area.  In particular, the recommendation to adopt the building code and also the emphasis the report placed on strengthening cities as centers of commercial activity (where infrastructure investments have been made) make logical sense and are long overdue.

The next phase of this project shows how difficult it can be to implement a plan.  The Chamber, working with the regional planning entities of Region 5, Crow Wing County and Cass County, have pooled their efforts behind a project to standardize the area's plans and regulations. To quote from a recent article in the local newspaper,

"....planners ..... have been hired to guide representatives of Cass and Crow Wing counties; the cities of Lake Shore, East Gull Lake and Nisswa; and Fairview Township toward creating more uniformity in their comprehensive plans and zoning regulations."

This was one of the Chamber's recommendations (see recommendation #3), so it is not like this initiative is coming out of the blue.  The Chamber indicates that a "simplified development process" and "improved government communication" would be a benefit.  More boldly, the newspaper indicates that another benefit would be, "preserving lake and water quality for the region and the health of its residents, visitors and woodlands...

If it were only that easy.

As anyone who has served on a committee or commission knows, consensus is a difficult thing. This is particularly true when:

  • There is no requirement that consensus be reached.  Any agreement on an issue would be voluntary and non-binding.
  • Those that must reach consensus are elected officials, each elected by a different constituency.
  • Consensus involves changing plans and standards that have been developed over years, have a local basis, have involved engagement with the local population and, in general, have local support.
  • The regulation of property and property rights is involved.
  • There is no alternative that presents a clear advantage over another.

In a democratic system, what can be expected to happen is one of two things. Either consensus is reached for the sake of a process and then nothing is done to implement the consensus (a consensus of apathy) or the basis of agreement is watered-down to the point where the consensus is meaningless (the lowest common denominator). Either way, without a compelling alternative approach, where uniformity is achieved it is akin to the proverbial rearranging of the chairs on the Titanic.

In reality, the current plans and ordinances in each of these communities are about as uniform as one could get. Each of the ordinances is based on the same model. The definitions are fairly similar, as are the zoning classifications and performance standards. These are, in turn, very similar to what is found throughout the entire region and state. Yes, there are local nuances, but they are all a variation on a Euclidean theme. (To understand why this is, read our January 7 blog entry "Five No-Cost Solutions for Small Towns").

Even if a substantive consensus can be reached, the premise that there is great benefit to uniformity is flawed. While there may be some advantage to the local builder that has to cross jurisdictions, the fact is uniformity, standardization and a general lack of creativity are the causes of many of the problems we see in Small Town and Rural America.

A case against uniformity has been made by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In the book she states,

"[T]he greatest flaw in city zoning is that it permits monotony. Perhaps the next greatest flaw is that it ignores scale of use, where this is an important consideration, or confuses it with kind of use, and this leads, on the one hand, to visual (and sometimes functional) disintegration of streets, or on the other hand to indiscriminate attempts to sort out and segregate kinds of uses no matter what their size or empiric effect. Diversity itself is thus unnecessarily suppressed ... ."

In short, our regulations emphasize "use" instead of "compatibility" or "scale". This stifles creativity, creates uniformity of outcome and leads to needless bureaucracy and regulation.

In Small Town America, Euclidean zoning has already created uniformity. Towns and countrysides have blended together to become nearly indistinguishable as one drives from coast to coast. The backdrop may differ from forest to prairie to tundra to bayou, but the development pattern remains essentially the same.

And along the way, as the Brainerd Lakes Chamber adeptly identified in Central Minnesota, the model not only undermines small-town values, it is economically unsustainable.

What is needed is not a uniform model but a different model.  

Although, if one has uniformity as the highest value....

Photo by Ryan Ludwig, provided here by Creative Commons License. Click photo for licensing agreement.