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September 9, 2013
Long before I worked for a newspaper, I was a city planner.
That was in the 1970s, when Britain went through an economic bad patch. There was little development and even less money in local government. It wasn’t the greatest time to be a planner.
Most of the plans I helped produce ended up on a dusty shelf somewhere, unloved and unused.
“Yes, very nice,” my bosses on the council would say, “but we have no money at the moment. Could you do another one?”
My point is this: Drawing up fancy plans never actually got anything done. There has to be the political will to turn plans into reality.
So, I’ve been alternately amused and infuriated by recent letters to the editor that label the South Florida Regional Planning Council’s Seven50 strategic plan an “abominable socialist scheme.”
If you believe the naysayers, Seven50 will usher in a 1984, Big Brother-type future where we could be “forced to live in high-rises, near public transit, next to neighbors not of your choosing, possibly not be allowed to have pets, and walk, bike or ride the train to work or buy groceries,” according to a letter from Charlotte Munsick of Vero Beach.
My reaction? If only planners had that much influence. I never did. And do you actually get to choose your neighbors now in Vero Beach?
A determined band of protesters is making the rounds of council chambers trying to sell their version of the Apocalypse to elected officials. Most have politely but firmly rebuffed them.
It’s gotten to the point where Michael Busha, executive director of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council — which offers long-range predictions for Treasure Coast counties and is affiliated with the South Florida Regional Planning Council — wrote to elected officials in Palm Beach County, Port St. Lucie and Martin County to debunk the rumors.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in 32 years as a planner,” Busha told me this week.
The Seven50 plan, which covers seven counties from the Keys to Indian River County, is intended to be a look at the next 50 years to see where trends such as population growth, transportation needs, climate change and changing technology — fiber optics, for example — could guide future development.
Yes, the plan is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing & Development, Busha said, but it’s not a federal plan. It’s being drawn up by the regional planning councils in our part of the state, and is one out of 47 similar crystal ball-gazing efforts the federal government is paying for.
Busha’s big point is that all of this is purely voluntary.
No one is forcing your city or county to adopt any of it. Rather, the plan is intended as a road map for the future. It’s a guide, not a mandate.
As Busha said, “(as a regional planing council) we’re charged with ‘looking around the corner’ to do long-term regional planing that provides local governments with the best data we can. Whether they follow it is totally their choice.”
Busha was as amused as I am at the suggestion that South Florida Regional Planning Council members — including representatives from various chambers of commerce — could be described as socialists.
Busha also pointed out that the Seven50 plan isn’t anything new. “We’ve done two regional plans in 1985 and 1995,” he said, “and the (bad) things people are talking about now never happened. There’s no evidence they will happen.”
As a former planner, I can see the logic behind trying to restrict future development east of the urban services line, rather than encouraging urban sprawl to inch its way west. That would probably mean thousands of new septic tanks. As we’re seeing from the Indian River Lagoon crisis, we need fewer septic tanks, not more of them.
Busha pointed out that of 128 municipalities in the Seven50 area, only three have decided to opt out of the plan: Indian River Shores, the city of Vero Beach and the Indian River County Commission.
“I’m told I’m an unwitting participant in a global conspiracy,” Busha said, laughing. I’d laugh, too, if letters to the editor like the one I quoted above weren’t so misguided as to be dangerous.
A socialist conspiracy? You’ve got to be joking.