As a planning consultant, I experience many forms of citizen particpation throughout the various stages of the planning process. The one theme that is always persistent is the luck of knowledge that the average citizen has about the planning process, especially the technical lingo that we use everyday pertaining to uses permitted by right, special use permits, and rezonings.
On a typical master plan, we can have two forms of public input, one is a mailed survey and another is a community open house where anyone can come and provide feedback, input, and ideas. The extent of how broad we can be in gathering community input is determined by the master plan project budget. Oftentimes we are gathering and analyzing the input, never educating the public.
Then at planning commission meetings, the public shows up and tries to use their NIMBY creditials to stop projects or deride and impugn the local officials. They think a use variance is the same thing as a special use, or that a referendum that reversed an earlier rezoning stops all future development on the property in question all-together.
And the sad thing is, because they don't understand the process or the lingo, they get lost in the shuffle. The important issues they raise get ignored because it appears they don't know what they are talking about, or their credibility is severely diminished because the only time they participate in the planning process is when it is a NIMBY issue. These are scared people trying desperately to save their lifestyle. They don't like change and they try to engage public officials. But everything they say falls flat and goes nowehere.
And I am frustrated. Here I am, a planning consultant working for local units of government, getting paid by the hour, attending night meetings, oftentimes hearing the locals talking the talk, but not really getting it right. I want to educate them so bad. But it's not in the budget. I want the planning commissioners to take a five minute break and do some explaining, but then that looks like they're talking down to the locals, and we all wanted to get out of there five minutes ago. I want them to learn the process. But outside of their own neighborhood, it seems they don't really care. The planning basics are fairly easy, but the local newspaper misconstrues the facts, even using biased secondary sources as the basis for the main thesis in an average article.
How can it be this bad? Am I the only planner out there who wishes the locals were more informed? And if you've done it before, what works when you educate the public? They are not the enemy just because they don't understand the planning process.