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Other Voices: Let residents in on SDA discussions

Reflecting its laudable “let’s move carefully” approach, the city of Grass Valley some time ago hired a consultant to study the economic and fiscal impacts of developing the four Special Development Areas surrounding the city. As readers may know from coverage in The Union, the consultant’s report was released – behind schedule – in September.

As you might expect, the study is not a page-turner, but you can download it from the city’s Web site (www.cityofgrassvalley.com) and try to digest its numbers and data tables for yourself.

Although the SDA study will bore the average citizen, it’s a big deal to the impatient would-be developers of the SDAs. They want to see its arrival as the final step of information-gathering and the beginning of action.

That would be putting the cart before the horse. Although the kind of information contained in the study is important to consider, it is not what should drive the process of planning for Grass Valley’s future. What’s missing is meaningful public participation-citizens deciding how they want their community to grow.

The study makes guesses about future population growth and demand for housing, jobs, and commercial and business space. Based on its projections, it comes up with the number of housing units and the square footage of commercial space that Grass Valley may need to “absorb” in the next 15 years. The numbers are not all that large – the projected need for housing, for example, falls short of what the SDA developers are proposing in total – but it’s important that we not take them as gospel.

In the first place, the study’s projections are questionable. Fifteen years is plenty of time for more increases in the price of gasoline, bursting of the housing market bubble, rising interest rates, or another long recession to drastically change market dynamics and the recent demographic trends on which the study relies so heavily.

But even more importantly, what external forces may or may not have in store for western Nevada County in the next 15 years is largely beside the point. What matters is what we want for our community. Despite our political differences, we generally agree that we don’t want worse traffic or Roseville-style sprawl. At the same time, we generally agree with the need for a vibrant economy and housing for people with low and moderate incomes. The only way to balance these values and needs and arrive at a vision for the future that we can all embrace is to plan democratically.

The SDA study is useless for this purpose. Democratic planning means debate, compromise, and listening to everyone’s point of view. It comes from talking and problem-solving, not number- crunching.

To their credit, the folks at city hall are allowing for at least the appearance of public participation in regards to the SDAs. The consultants who prepared the SDA study will be presenting it during a special city council meeting Oct. 27, during which the public will be allowed some comment, and planning is underway for a series of subsequent public workshops and a community survey. Does this mean those at city hall really care about what citizens think? Don’t be so sure.

It’s clear that some city officials dislike debate, political openness, and questioning of the status quo. Firing the too-outspoken planning commissioner Terry Lamphier is but a recent example. Unless citizens demand opportunities for real participation, appearance is likely to triumph over substance.

Members of the City Council: Here is your opportunity to show th at you truly want citizens to participate in determining the city’s future. Set up the meeting on the 27th to allow the public to question both the conclusions of the study and its assumptions. Admit that the study only scratches the surface of what we need to know before proceeding to make some of the most important decisions in Grass Valley’s history.

Take seriously what citizens say in the survey. Encourage all citizens to take part in the workshops. Create opportunities for developing creative alternatives to what the four developers have proposed for the SDAs. Allow the community as a whole to “think outside the box” and figure out ways of forging win-win solutions, preserving our quality of life and promoting sustainable development.

Whether or not city officials rise to this challenge, responsibility ultimately lies with the citizens of Grass Valley and the western county. It’s time to step up to the plate and take control of your future. Attending the meeting Oct. 27 is a good first step.

Eric Engles lives in Grass Valley.