NO SUPER WALMART YES MOSCOW
Published on Wednesday, March 8, 2006 by Daily News

TOWN CRIER: Moscow, we have a problem.
by Mark Solomon


“Houston, we have a problem.” Those words from Apollo 13 struck fear into the hearts of people all over the world and provoked the determined ingenuity of the team of flight controllers, engineers and astronauts to fix it. And fix it they did with the mission successfully completed and all hands returned safely to Earth.

“Moscow, we have a problem.” The failing mechanism of land use planning and zoning that is supposed to hold our community together is instead tearing us apart. What should be decisions reached through respectful discussion have become pitched battles between participants fought from ideologically fortified positions. As captured so well by the New Cities folks, we have confrontation not collaboration.

I’m not saying we should all agree. Our opinions are and should be as numerous as there are people in town. But we have deferred almost all discussion of Moscow’s future, with the exception of the New Cities program, to the planning and zoning process loading an impossible burden onto a system that was never designed for it. It is as cumbersome, restricted and stilted a discussion forum as it is possible to conceive. As with the problems faced by Apollo 13, it is in our power to fix it before we crash and burn but we must first accept that process itself is as big a problem as the issues it is supposed to decide.

Land use planning is, relatively speaking, a recent addition to how we go about building our communities. As Dave Trail pointed out at last weeks New Cities meeting, it was only thirty-nine years ago that the City of Moscow and Latah County commissioned our first land-use planning document. While there have been several revisions since then, they have all retained the basic planning premise of separating uses.

It’s easy to see where the separation doctrine comes from. In the suburban explosion of the post-WWII era, new subdivisions often found themselves next to older existing industries. With their new political clout, residents of the new suburbs pushed for planning tools that would separate types of uses that were deemed incompatible. Keep the pig farms away from the houses, separate the concrete batch plant from the elementary school, keep the pesticide distributor away from the shopping center. With the zeal of the newly converted, planners, communities and legislatures started splitting and splitting and splitting types of uses: industrial from commercial; commercial from residential; high density residential from low density residential; etc. It is a recipe for confrontation, not collaboration, and the pot is boiling over.

The difference here is not an intellectual argument: it is the core of our planning for the future of Moscow. Changing from confronting to collaborating will require a complete rewrite of all our planning and zoning documents, ordinances and public involvement policies.

I do not believe we can wait until there is an entire package written to start shifting the way we work together. We all know how those well-intentioned big planning processes go. They go on and on and on until only the truly committed (who by then are usually “committable”) are left standing and the public reacts to the huge “new” document with understandable cries of “how did this get here without us knowing about it!” and the once visionary process grinds to a halt on the divide between status quo and change. We should acknowledge that P&Z members are over-tasked volunteers tirelessly trying to stay abreast of their normal duties and slowly falling further and further behind. The Council could ease that burden by appointing a special task force to draft proposals for City consideration such as was used to draft the recently adopted Large Scale Retail Ordinance.

Here are a few suggested starting points:
Create new “mixed use” comprehensive plan and zoning designations that allow for areas to grow more organically instead of by artificially separating uses.

Offer shortcuts in the formal planning process to developers who meaningfully engage the community in designing a proposal before it enters the application stage.

Require applicants who don’t use the pre-application public engagement process to hold a public meeting to discuss the proposal before it is formally heard before the City.
Will these proposals fix all our problems? No, not by themselves. But they could be the first real step away from confrontation and towards collaboration. By combining uses instead of separating them we become part of a greater whole not islands unto ourselves. We can land this capsule safely.
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