Public officials in our tri-state area have talked for some time about developing a comprehensive regional growth plan, and, at last, that effort is about to begin. The goal would be to coordinate and strengthen infrastructure and core public services to facilitate job growth and orderly development over the coming decades, while protecting the region's quality of life and unique sense of place.
Yet as sensible as this idea is, there have been some reservations -- at least among some Hamilton County commissioners -- about what counties have to gain from participating or doing any growth planning, and about how the idea might be perceived by taxpayers and property owners.
Armando Carbonell's talks here Monday and Tuesday should help clarify the benefits of regional planning and calm any concerns. Carbonell, a nationally prominent authority on regional planning and the speaker Tuesday night for the George T. Hunter lecture series, reasonably sees only benefits from regional planning -- improved opportunities, a larger economic pie to share, and stronger political clout due to regional identification and larger voter strength.
In his work around the country, he has found that regions that pursue comprehensive growth planning are simply looking to how development will occur in the future, and how they can best maintain or improve their quality of life and quality of place by working together toward common goals, and to overcome common problems.
He reasonably sees this happening in our 16-county tri-state area because these counties are already so entwined in mutually shared interests, business activities and values. In a noon meeting Tuesday of the region's elected representatives, he noted the many ways the officials themselves described their existing interconnections with each other: As commuters, employees and employers, students, shoppers, visitors, business suppliers and vendors. They also are linked, he observed, by mutual aid agreements, common media and business markets, sports rivalries, watersheds, local culture, civic values and regional scenic beauty and viewsheds.
Carbonell also found our metro region to be bound by a real sense of brighter opportunities generated by a growing wave of economic growth that will require stronger interconnections and infrastructure. Examples include worker training, transportation corridors, water supplies, sewers, utilities and waste disposal.
Under regional planning initiatives, he said, towns and counties that work together still do so voluntarily, chiefly because the benefits are larger and more cost-efficient than trying to do major initiatives alone -- or not doing them at all, and getting left behind in job growth and economic stagnation. Carbonell noted the example of 15 towns along Cape Cod that highly prized their identity and self-sufficiency, but that ultimately joined together to build a regional waste disposal center because it saved so much money through economies of scale and joint negotiating power. That led to cooperation in other projects.
Similarly, he said, Utah, a bastion of unabridged property rights, initiated a successful and ongoing planning process, Envision Utah, because local governments and their constituents recognized the larger opportunities to improve job growth and regional transportation projects.
Carbonell said he respected and advocated property rights and zoning, and he acknowledged some observers' fears of conflicts over potential intrusions on such rights. He added, however, that regional planning typically improves the value of property because it protects, improves and elevates the value of all property generally.
In fact, regional planning here is unlikely to touch on zoning and property-rights issues. Such land-use issues would remain, as now, subject to municipal and county jurisdictions and ordinances.
"Regionalism isn't anti-localism," he stressed. "It's a way of bringing good things together." He wisely recommended that local leaders "make a habit of getting together regularly" to discuss opportunities, compare problems, share insights, build networks and find common ground on important issues that affect everyone.
His view is that regionalism offers something more than the status quo, not something less. He also emphasized that "growth doesn't just happen; it's planned. And if you don't plan, you may not get it."
The Hamilton County Commission, especially, should heed that admonition. It took Chattanooga and Hamilton County 20 years of planning and dedicated effort to gain control over the old Volunteer Army Ammunition site, to turn into Enterprise South, to make it a TVA-certified megasite, and finally to recruit and land local government's dream -- an auto manufacturing plant. The planning, or lack thereof, that Hamilton and other counties do going forward together will determine the scope of the ripples, or the limits, of that success.