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Land-control groups can be of great benefit - if they learn art of compromise

October 21, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

If it is to be successful in achieving its ultimate goal, and for the most part I hope that it is, at some point the group known as the Citizens for the Protection of Washington County - or any group that desires land controls - is going to have to publicly speak up in favor of a subdivision.

Although it's been around in some form or another for years, the CPWC has only begun to make an impression in the minds of the public at large. It hosted an immensely helpful candidate forum and has organized against a couple of high-profile developments.

Not too many people will argue with the ideas of protecting our scenery, maintaining our rural, agricultural ambiance, preserving out historic integrity, keeping our wells clean and our roads passable.

To that end, you can make a case against just about any development committed to blueprint, from single-family homes to cell phone towers.

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You can, but it is critically important that you don't.

It's not long before groups that oppose anything and everything not only lose their effectiveness, but end up doing their cause more harm than good.

To choose a group on either side of the political spectrum, take the National Organization for Women and the National Rifle Association. Both have sizable numbers of dedicated followers, but the cold truth is that to majority of Americans, both NOW and the NRA are little more than comic relief. Fodder for political cartoonists, or grist for partisan fund-raisers - even though a great majority of Americans favor women's rights and most reasonable forms of gun ownership.

But these groups never bend, never compromise. You don't sense much intelligent, back-and-forth debate within the ranks over issues in which the majority of Americans can see both sides.

For whatever reason, land-use groups are prone to this trap. In other counties, in other states, I've seen the righteous determination on their faces as they speak at public hearings or before boards of planners, zoners and commissioners. What they don't see after they've turned their backs is the rolled eyes and the knowing smirks of public officials who have heard the same harangue time after time.

In planning strategy, land-use groups should be cognizant and respectful of opposing arguments and emotions, many of which are both valid and widely held. For example:

n Striking against development may also be seen as striking against the livelihood not just of developers, but of architects, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, masons, and a host of building supply/furnishing retailers.

Construction jobs are plentiful now, but that could change. And the wife of a carpenter may feel some legitimate resentment if her family has to make do with less to satisfy the aesthetic values of others.

n Advocates of land restrictions are effectively arguing that they should control someone else's property - property that person may have obtained with no small amount of sweat and risk. Certainly there are times when collective good outweighs individual prerogative, but the burden of proof rests with those who don't own the land.

n Advocates wish to dictate to people where they may and may not live - often from the comfort of their already established living rooms. A lot of people who oppose growth might not have the pleasure of living in their nice home in the country today if the people of yesterday had held the same anti-growth attitudes as do they.

Taken together, these arguments present quite a high bar for people whose knees jerk to a negative attitude every time a developer walks into the planning commission carrying a plat.

With that in mind, it might behoove land-restriction groups to keep their powder dry for the situations where it really matters - where a meaningful vista would be positively spoiled, where history would be compromised or traffic counts become unbearable.

It's smart to choose logic over emotion. Will a neighborhood really be overrun with hookers if a truck stop is located on the interstate or, when you think about it, is that argument just plain goofy?

It's smart to choose restraint over hyperbole. Is approval of a 600-home subdivision going to instantly befoul roads and schools, or in fact is that development going to take 10 to 20 years to fill, giving services an ample chance to keep pace?

It is smart to compromise. Offer to drop the push for a moratorium of dubious necessity if builders will agree to some sort of development fee. And lawmakers who smell votes and pander to the vocal anti-growth interests should stop ducking the phone calls of builders who want to initiate a dialogue. That's not leadership. What's to lose by hearing out both sides?

Most important, if advocates have an idea where they don't want growth, it's smart to have an idea where growth is OK. It's impossible to stress enough how much more effective a special interest group can be if it appears thoughtful, if it doesn't robotically pop up like a jack-in-a-box of negativity every time its issue is crossed.

Those of us who value the rural, aesthetic and historic advantages of Washington County are counting on groups such as the CPWC to be a meaningful voice as the county evolves. Lots of good people share their interests and root for their success. But if land-use interests fail to compromise, fail to choose their battles, fail to realize that builders are not the enemy but part of the community we all share, the opportunity they have now and the political advantages they currently enjoy will be lost.

The squeaky wheel doesn't always get the grease; sometimes the whole wagon is just relegated to the back of the shed and ignored. We can't afford to let that happen.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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