Maximum feasible public participation


April 30, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

WHAT A good idea! Get the people involved in planning recreation facilities in their neighborhoods.

Wonder why no one thought of that before?

Howard County recreation officials are planning to have meetings, hear everyone's views and then go forward with plans to develop or improve recreational facilities. They figure they'll save money, headaches and even a project or two.

It's an old lesson, of course, learned first during the 1960s and perfected since then -- turned into an art form almost by opponents of everything from incinerators and mixed-use developments to lighted softball diamonds.

Smart public officials and private business interests don't try to bully their way to the construction phase anymore. People know they can fight city hall and they love doing it. Prudent public and private interests have recognized for years that well-organized citizen groups can defeat almost any plan. Baltimore has a road to nowhere -- the would-have-been link between downtown and the beltway was never completed thanks to citizen action.

A plan to put a highway through east Baltimore neighborhoods was defeated as well -- a young social worker named Barbara A. Mikulski stopped the highway plans of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer.

Mr. Schaefer struck up new and healthier relationships with the neighborhoods that defeated him -- and Ms. Mikulski used her newly honed political skills to become a member of the City Council, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

"The Road" was probably a bad idea -- and the community found it could fight back against city hall. City Hall got smarter, too.

Now in Howard County, the recreation planners have learned a similar lesson. Having had their heads handed to them politely but firmly over the past two years, they've decided to make allies of the people.

They are right to regroup. But you can hear the frustration in their voices as they bow to reality. The county needs to develop more recreational outlets -- and almost 90 percent of the available land remains undeveloped.

The conflicts are real and daunting.

Even as county residents ask for more play areas, the battalions of neighborhood opposition roll big guns up to the front and defeat or pare back plans to improve or develop open spaces.

In some cases, the county has spent $50,000 or so on consultants only to have the plans disintegrate. A proposal to develop the 300-acre Western Regional Park attracted 300 people to a meeting in January -- many of them to protest features they feared would attract large numbers of visitors to their nearby neighborhoods.

Not wishing to offend so many clearly active voters, County Executive James N. Robey announced shortly after the meeting that a 300-person picnic pavilion and an amphitheater would not be part of the plan after all.

The recreation folks now propose a good faith, more fully enlightened approach to the problem of public improvements. They are conceding that old ways just don't work -- in part because they fell short of the maximum feasible guideline.

In one case, polling the community in advance proved insufficient: Supporters of "general" concepts turned into opponents when they saw the detailed plans submitted by the consultants.

One county councilman says some people react angrily because they suspect government wants to force improvements "down their throats."

Surely this perspective, if accurate, is an odd one. It suggests an alarming lack of trust between the public and a government which seems to have its interests at heart. Surely any bad feelings will be exacerbated if plans are not made with public participation.

Responsible planners may also have to cope with the conclusion that every now and then the public would rather fight than accept anything. Sometimes public officials will have to make courageous judgments about what the county or city or state as a whole needs. This is particularly true when commercial enterprises attempt to veto public amenities because they fear competition.

Veteran councilman C. Vernon Gray worries that opposition to recreation facilities outside Columbia could result in making the city home to every skateboard arena and goal post in the county.

So, the people should be brought into the debate about projects built for them. The projects will get better if everyone works in good faith -- and the project may actually get built.

But the downside will be a pitiful gridlock and a serious outbreak of all points NIMBY fever. Broadly speaking, almost everything anyone ever wants to do will be in someone's back yard.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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