"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Plug For Planning, And a Call To Contribute

     This post is aimed at my readers in Montgomery County.  The County Planning Commission is now gathering information for their next comprehensive plan, entitled “Montco 2040: A Shared Vision,” and is seeking citizen input.  I’m here to support that request.
     It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I support not just cooperative planning among local municipalities, but citizen input to the planning process.  A major theme of my work is that the problems confronting our municipalities are much broader than the borders of any one of them.  I encourage local citizen activist groups to communicate and plan together; I can hardly do otherwise for their municipalities.  Yet my true interest here is supporting any opportunity for individuals to speak directly to those who will have so much influence over our future, but who are not subject to voter recall.  Local municipalities are all going to participate; you should too.
     Planning has become an important part of community development.  The following quote from the Planning Commission reveals why it is so important in today’s complex, interlocking world:
            “The county plan provides an overall framework for local municipal
            plans and provides guidance on issues that transcend local boundaries,
            such as highways, public transportation, flooding, trails, growth trends,
            redevelopment trends, shopping needs, impact of large developments,
            overall housing needs, natural systems, and economic growth.”

     That pretty much covers local issues, don’t you think?  They effect everyone, and everyone has an opportunity to be part of planning how to deal with them.  The county is seeking the input of private citizens.  You can contribute in different ways:

--The County Planning Commission website has a questionnaire you can fill out at a third party site.  Here is a link directly to the questionnaire site (you don’t even have to go through the Planning website):  //www.surveymonkey.com/s/2040CompPlan

--Four public meetings are scheduled for the second half of this month, at different locations around the county.  You can attend in person and be heard.  Here is the list:

November 18, 7 – 9 PM, Steel River Playhouse, 245 East High Street, Pottstown
November 19, 4 – 6 PM, North Penn Community Health Foundation, 2506 North
    Broad Street, Colmar
November 20, 7 – 9 PM, Upper Dublin Township Building, 801 Loch Alsh Avenue,
    Fort Washington
November 25, 4 – 6 PM, Upper Merion Township Building, 175 West Valley Forge
    Road, King of Prussia

Here’s an interesting possibility: you can even request a speaker come to your organization, discuss the process and take your input.  This would be a great opportunity for a community activist group, or even a community discussion group, to get together and organize such a presentation at your locale.  It would help to build community spirit, and get that community better informed.   You need to fill out an online request form (or you can call them).  Here is a direct link to the request form (again, you don’t have to go through any other website):  http://www.montcopa.org/FormCenter/Planning-Commission-11/Montco-2040-Speaker-Request-Form-107

     Think of it this way:  in my previous post, I argued strongly that you should vote in local elections. In an election, you only get to choose between people already selected for you.  Contributing to the Comprehensive Plan allows you to say exactly what you wish, about the local issues that are important to you.  Shouldn’t you speak up, and if not, why not?
     Let me anticipate one comment about all this: How much will your voice count?  Just like in an election, that depends on how many voices speak up; if many speak, and many of them express the same thought, it will be noticed.  Rather like voting, your voice is individually anonymous, but potentially important.

     As a historian, I cannot resist commenting about how much of a sea change has taken place in the Philadelphia suburbs in its feelings about planning.  The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania first established a planning commission in 1934, at the urging of the Federal Government.  Acceptance of the concept in Republican-dominated Pennsylvania was not helped by the fact that its originator was the hated Franklin Roosevelt.  Montgomery County did not establish a planning commission until 1950.  Even then, as the county began to promote the concept of regional cooperation, it found itself surrounded by a center of opposition to the very idea of planning.  Norristown Borough Council staunchly declined to establish a Borough Planning Commission until late 1961, and then did so only over vociferous opposition and a mayoral veto of the original ordinance.  Council also abolished it in 1972, by the way.  Opposition was trumpeted in ideological terms about local freedom; the issue was actually local control.  Norristown Borough Council virtually worshipped the concept, and applied it down to the ward level.  The delay in establishing a planning commission was but one unfortunate result of this approach for Norristown as a whole.  There were many others.  Maybe such a delay affected your community.

     But that was then.  This is now, and things have changed.  Municipal resistance to planning has disappeared.  The reason was…wait for it…money.  The 1960s saw lots of it become available to municipalities, and the gravy train still continues its run.  From the beginning, however, its government conductors made it clear that the gravy train only stopped where planners had been appointed and had produced a plan.  Eventually even the recalcitrant fell in line.  The first County Comprehensive Plan was adopted in 1979.  Successive plans followed, at irregular intervals.  The most recent comprehensive plan was completed in 2005, and it’s time for the next one.

     Planning still faces an enemy, one it has faced from the beginning:  APATHY.  Back in 1966, the Montgomery County and the Norristown Planning Commissions together distributed a questionnaire to Norristown residents, seeking input to their local planning survey.  Of the 3,000 distributed, only 1,047 were returned, and most of those were the result of a last-minute decision to make it a project for the high school students (who had to turn it back in).  That pretty much tells you what you need to know, but for further reinforcement, the following were the three “prevalent attitudes”:
--Apathy and indifference to the planning process in the Borough.
--Suspicion as to how the data would be used.
--Cynicism, as expresses in such comments as “Nothing ever gets done in Norristown anyway.”

     This was a judgment about just the (then) Borough of Norristown, almost fifty years ago.  Now flash forward to today, and to your municipality.  Are things any different?

     Well, they should be.  You can do your part to make it so, and you don’t even have to leave your home computer, let alone your home.  Still, I would submit to you that even in this digital age, nothing beats real people saying real things directly to the faces of those who have some say over their lives.  Try it.

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