I gotta admit that I cringed when I pulled up the last issue of The Bloomington Alternative and saw editor Steve's piece on the new county Comprehensive Plan.
And I cringed even more as I read the piece, choc-a-bloc as it was full of assurances from my friend and County Commissioner Mark Stoops that this time the community was going to be able to get a hold of its destiny.
More than a decade's worth of involvement in land-use issues -- including the epiphany that almost the entirety of local government's existential purpose is not to provide police and fire protection, or the justice system, or anything else other than to arbitrate land use -- had left me rather cynical about the topic.
Ya gotta have one, but you don't have to mind it
"Comprehensive plans aren't about money, they're about community. Zoning ordinances are about money, they're about the speculators."
Comprehensive plans are statutorily required "vision" documents. That means that the state (as in Indiana) requires that any local government that implements property zoning also have a plan that directs how the zoning ordinances (laws) will be written.
Comprehensive plans are not themselves ordinances, nothing in them has the force of law, but they are to be referred to when writing the actual laws. And a plan must exist.
But not necessarily followed. Above I said that the comprehensive plan is to be referred to when crafting the actual zoning laws. But nowhere is the degree of reference specified and certainly no standard of agreement between the plan and the actual laws is required.
This leads to an interesting process. Comprehensive plans tend to reflect the democratic and general community agreement about how the future should look. Zoning laws, on the other hand, reflect not the cultural interests of the community but the pecuniary interests of land speculators and rentiers, the financial sector that earns its living off of loans to the speculators as well as any industries, from newspapers to utilities, whose revenue is a function not of the quality of a place but of the place's quantity.
This was driven home to me a few years ago when I was peripherally involved in the then-nascent process of updating the county's existing comprehensive plan. Originally drafted in 1996 (as I recall), by 2006 there was a general understanding that it was out of date and in need of an update.
There was also a creeping feeling that over the intervening decade the plan might not have just grown stale, but that it might have been neglected altogether.
"The community merit of any comprehensive plan is measured by the reaction of capital. The more they hate it, the better you can assume it is."
A fact laid bare and bloody when, in preparation for update, we were tasked with comparing two separate maps. One, from the original 1996 plan, was a depiction of where the community saw it appropriate to locate facets of our built environment.
An industrial area over here. Greenspace there. Homes and schools along this. Offices and shopping scattered here, here, here and here.
The other, the current zoning map, was a depiction of where the zoning laws actually allowed actual facets of the built environment to be. Apartments here, houses here, shopping here, industrial there.
And the two maps didn't agree, as far as I could tell, on a single point. The community vision map, the plan, said, "The community wanted to look like this." The zoning map, the law, said "No, actually the community looks like this."
In other words, the old comprehensive plan had been thoroughly ignored. None of the citizen input that went into crafting it, none of the community desire to shape its future, nothing about it had been paid the slightest bit of attention when the actual zoning laws themselves had been made.
Which was shocking, at first. Later, I came to understand why that was so and why, I cynically believed, it would forever be.
At its root, zoning is about money. The invention of use-separated zoning in the early part of the 20th century was an invention of the real-estate class as a method of implementing a form of arbitrage in the land market. By being able to control what functions could be performed on a parcel of land, and what functions could not, an entire class of speculators was enabled -- speculators who could be assured of a guaranteed return if they could be assured of a guaranteed control of the zoning process. Up-zone land parcels they controlled, down-zone those they didn't.
Buy low, sell high.
I said earlier that the existential reason for local government is to arbitrate land. And the existential reason for land arbitration is to make money for the arbitrators.
"I happened to stop by the planning commission meeting where the new comprehensive plan made its debut."
Comprehensive plans aren't about money, they're about community. Zoning ordinances are about money, they're about the speculators.
So it should come as no surprise that a plan crafted in the vision of a community is ignored in favor of a set of laws crafted in the vision of profit. For the 10 years between when the original comprehensive plan was written and when its replacement was first contemplated, an incessant and relentless procession of land interests had pressed against the by-design malleable zoning laws, hammering them into a form that represented not the community vision, but guaranteed returns.
And it was with that knowledge that I approached the piece in the last Alternative. "Steve, Mark," I said to myself, "surely you can't be this naive. Surely you know the game is rigged. Meet the new plan, same (destiny) as the old plan."
"I only ask that you judge me by the enemies I have made" - Franklin Delano Roosevelt
I happened to stop by the planning commission meeting where the new comprehensive plan made its debut, last week. I approached the plan's principle author, Richard Martin, and told him of my skepticism. But I also noted the overwhelming turnout at the meeting by the speculator class. Every big developer, bank, real-estate lessors, and the Chamber of Commerce was in attendance.
And that told me something.
"I listened to Richard's presentation. This plan would be different than the last one."
"Richard, " I said, "You said your plan won't please everyone. And by the looks of the room, we see who isn't pleased. And that's a good thing, because the community merit of any comprehensive plan is measured by the reaction of capital. The more they hate it, the better you can assume it is."
And I listened to Richard's presentation. This plan would be different than the last one. Instead of concentrating on 1970s-era notions of how to do a plan, that is designing zoning as an exercise in the separation of purpose (shopping here, work there, homes over there), this would design zoning as a specification of form. What things should look like, not what they would allow to happen.
All with a goal to, as Richard said, keep the rural, rural and the urban, urban. Meaning not to try and perpetuate the suburban mistake of the post WW II era, in which it was thought that the best of the rural and urban could be combined but in reality where much of the worst of both was realized.
And with that ethos a new kind of zoning code could be authored, one less malleable by the developers, one less specific about arbitration and one more descriptive of a place. A place to call home.
Gregory Travis can be reached at email@example.com.