Monday, July 23, 2007
Washington County's Vision Dixie Exposes A Great Divide
The Vision Dixie process—primarily a series of public workshops designed to engage citizens of Washington County in a dialogue about managing future population growth in the county—is nearing completion. Workshop recommendations were recently announced and the resulting vision will certainly be a welcome sight to county residents who have grown weary of the recent pace of development and the many negative side effects that accompany such rapid growth. Other county residents and public officials who favor and enable current growth patterns will undoubtedly hope this vision soon fades into obscurity.
Why? Because the results make it abundantly clear a chasm of enormous proportions has opened up between most residents and the current pro-growth policies and practices promoted by many local and state officials.
For example, participants in the workshops were asked to select from four different future visions. Scenario A envisioned low-density growth outside of current city limits—a vision that would generate even more sprawl than current practice. Scenario B was a baseline reflecting current policy and practice. Scenario C envisioned growth around mixed-use centers or villages, along with greater preservation of scenic vistas and open-space, and improvements in public transportation. Scenario D envisioned downtown centers, tightly consolidated development, vista and open-space preservation and major investments in public transportation.
In a stunningly strong repudiation of current practice, only 11% of participants aligned themselves with Scenario B. A whopping 85% rejected current growth patterns and selected either Scenario C (52%) or Scenario D (33%).
Some public officials who favor facilitating rapid growth will undoubtedly claim there is little difference between current practice and the dominant future vision, but it should be clear to anyone who honestly analyzes the results that a super-majority of residents who participated in the process are pleading for leadership that does a better job of protecting scenic vistas, provides more open-space for both recreation and conservation, avoids the current practice of scattered development by building walkable communities, and invests in public transportation, including more bike trails and bus lines.
Disappointingly, the pro-growth spin machine is already in motion. Even before the results were officially released, a few local officials were quoted in a newspaper article characterizing the upcoming results as merely a confirmation of policy and practices already understood and in place. It’s true that some cities in Washington County have dabbled in some of the desired outcomes, but not anywhere near the extent envisioned by the Vision Dixie participants. Continuing with the status quo is clearly not what most residents had in mind.
It would be a shame if city, county and state officials attempt to minimize the divide, rationalize their pro-growth policies as concessions to inevitability and continue to plow full speed ahead with little or no change. After all, they are public servants and though many obviously disagree with the public they serve on issues related to growth, they have a duty to represent the public interest, not their personal interests, or the interests of only the business community. I suspect that most are well intended and honestly believe they have been representing the public interest. Unfortunately, they have failed to recognize that the tens of thousands of newcomers who have moved here in recent years have aspirations for the community far different from the aspirations that prevailed only a few years ago. And these out-of-synch views are reinforced by the fact that many local public servants continue to associate with a relatively small circle of longtime friends and business associates who think just as they do.
The Vision Dixie process should be taken as a real wakeup call by every public servant in Washington County. It’s clear that most residents want a change in course before the county is transformed into a sprawling mess. It’s time for every public servant in the county to do what they were elected to do and represent the public they were elected to serve.