‘Regional’ planners work both sides of line — reacting, predestining

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When zoning and planner types see such scenes, they cringe. But I love vistas such as this one on Brainerd Road because they express the genius of free enterprise and give me a sense of the excitement of city life.

By David Tulis

What excites government workers more than anything is a crisis. A disaster, breakdown, collapse or sell-off bring them to the fore. Toolboxes clatter open, bristling with rules, controls, kill switches and police barriers; helicopters roar out. SUVs filled with friendly staffers roar away.

The activities of the free people of Tennessee are, in their minds, cause for alarm. The possibility of explosive growth in the Chattanooga area makes them tense, a little anxious.Their spirit is captured in an editorial published Thursday by a TV-9 journalist, Karen Zatkulak. “It’s a future that many city leaders *** want to prevent, a future that could be brought on by an economy that is too successful. It’s a future filled with overcrowded schools, clogged roads, and a community unable to handle the needs of too many people.”

The peril of an economy that “is too successful” is that civil authority will have to react to that success. So great has the sum of local, district, regional, state, special and federal government become that it looks upon the free market as dangerous. The free market, remember, is simply the sum of millions of private decisions made by private and corporate actors for private benefit, and for private profit. So, reacting is a big job. It costs money for civil authority to react with public services such as roads and schools as demand rises — or falls. Reacting also takes time, which can affect constituents’ happiness.

In the process run by highly trained experts, government multiplies stakeholders and works on 20- and 40-year “growth plans” such as that being developed by Thrive 2055 and its marketing manager. These plans are competing scenarios of what could happen decades in the future, though how anyone could guess the shape of public and private places that far out is a wondrous possibility.

THE CREATION OF A process lets government stand on both sides of a very important line. The line is that which is drawn whenever a party’s secret counsels break into the open in a public act. That could be the drawing of a building permit, a zoning change request for a new factory, a permitting process for a new dump, a board’s vote to build an elementary school. On one side of the line are plans. On the other, their execution.

With planning, the civil authority, wielding its swords, taxes and administration, stands on both sides of line. It wants to not just react to the public appearance of people’s moves, new businesses and private choices. It wants to reach into secret counsels and influence or control those decisions and the people who make them. It seeks to accomplish this intervention while avoiding any open entanglement with their property rights and constitutional protections.

And so these people on the public payroll and a “strong representation” of cohorts at EPB, CBL, McKee and other outfits want to control the private sector with the best means at their disposal, the better to soften and ease the public servant’s duty of reaction.

John Bridger at the regional planning group and 29 other people work day in, day out, to assess corporate and private interests in the use of property and public services, TV-9 said. “We have to go with [the] best information we have now to get ahead of the curve and grow responsibly,” Mr. Bridger said.

“Our goal is to create a kind of business plan for the region,” Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said in October. “In addition to incorporating traditional planning topics, the process will include financial analysis. We also aim to establish a set of numeric benchmarks, so we will be able to assess results as we implement the plan and make course corrections whenever necessary,” he said of the 40-year scheme.

J.Ed Marston of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce enumerates the benefits of the self-styled regional growth planning process to local people, people like you and me. “A process for effectively managing the accelerated growth the region is already experiencing through unprecedented investments by a number of industries.” Well, this benefit accrues to officials, not commoners.

Residents can have “a seat at the table in planning how the region can become prosperous and generate additional opportunities for ourselves and our children,” he says. But the table is not the citizen’s own, but that of public actors and stakeholders. The table is not intended to offer the commoner a benefit except to make him think his opinion is being considered and that his presence can help other private actors and the officials themselves.

Finally, he says, the process is valuable to “local citizens” because it gives them a forum and “an opportunity to join with others in preserving and enhancing what makes our communities special.” This statement is little more than a claim that a commoner’s airing his opinions at pointless public meetings, by itself, makes the community special.

MR. LOCAL ECONOMY MAN, the common resident of Hamilton County, is being drawn by public relations methods to think that his interest in himself and his hometown, by a mysterious process, commits him to a vast protocol that affects not only the giant that is Hamilton County, but 15 other counties in the region. The best intentions of common folks are going to be exploited into making them think that the two-sides-of-the-line control by government agents enhances their personal welfare and the prosperity of the county as awhole. The magnanimity of the common man in his care for his local economy is going to be used against him to shift control of the marketplace from the people to their superiors.

The news coverage of the gathering strength of the planning mechanism is full of powerful imagery and winning verbiage. Big media tells me planning is needed to “[deal] with the potential unbridled growth” brought by VW. By giving control to McBride Dale Clarion and its experts, Chattanooga can avoid the “sprawl and air quality issues” that affected the arrival of a BMW plant in Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C.

Should we look at the planning program further? I suspect there is much to discover beyond the press accounts and news releases scattered before me at my old wooden desk. Two questions come to mind.

Is planning to be understood as government’s planning to react to decisions made by people, families and firms in the free market? In other words, is planning purely reactive?

But planners aren’t people who react. They predestine. They produce outcomes. They win people to their plan and use a little coercion if they have to.

An interview with Commissioner Jim Fields suggests another valuable question. If Mr. Fields is right, and all the 40-year planning committee is doing is helping government to react to the market, why is a committee needed in the first place? Why a planning committee? That’s my second question. Why not a market-tracking committee or a public service committee? Why not a data evaluation study group? Or a city utility growth pattern committee?

Planning.

Planning?

In the meantime, let me come up with a prize for our “visual pollution” contest. Please send me your jpegs, captions, name and phone number and we will publish the most exuberant expressions of American capitalism and free market genius in future posts.

[I first published this essay in August 2012. — DJT]

Sources:

J.Ed. Marston, Chamber of Commerce, press releases Oct. 14 and Nov. 22, 2011

“Hamilton County growth panel sets December meeting,” Nov. 6, Times Free Press, Ansley Haman

“Leaders Plan for Growing Pains,” Karen Zatkulak, May 3, TV-9 website

“Counties face differing interests in planning effort,” Mike Pare, April 1, Times Free Press

“Bradley County residents meet for planning,” Paul Leach, Feb. 1, Times Free Press