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Fundamental Flaws with TRPC's Approach to a "Conversation"

By Jim Lazar

Like everyone in our County, I was invited to a "community-wide conversation that will shape the future of our region" in the form of a series of two-hour workshops held in Tumwater, Olympia, Lacey, Rochester, Rainier, Tenino, and Yelm. This was sponsored by the Thurston Regional Planning Council (TRPC) using their "Sustainable Thurston" $1.5 million planning grant.

I attended the first of these, at Tumwater High School, on March 28. The "conversation" never took place. Instead, the agenda for the evening consisted of the following:

  • A presentation by Thera Black, a TRPC Staffer, telling us that we needed to plan for about 180,000 additional people to move into our County by 2040.

  • Sitting at small tables with a few other citizens, and being asked to answer (in 30 seconds or less) questions about what we like about our community.

  • The placing of Lego blocks, representing 180,000 additional people, onto maps of Thurston County, indicating what type of development we wanted - tall urban or sprawling suburbs. -}

    I attempted to convert this into a conversation - one about the fundamental assumption of growth. Specifically, I wanted the opportunity to question the assumption of a high growth rate.

    Growth is not a given, as TRPC would suggest. With aggressive land use regulation, development codes that protect the environment, and appropriate development fees to make growth pay for growth, development costs would be higher. In response to higher real estate prices, I believe that we would have much lower numbers of new people here, and environmental and traffic impacts lower. That in turn would mean less need for current residents to subsidize growth, both because the new development would be more responsible, and because there would be less of it.

    This really comes down to a question of whether we want to live in Houston (sprawling suburbs ad infinitum) or in Santa Barbara (a community with very strict land use regulation to protect livability.) I thought that a "conversation" about what kind of community we want would be a good place to start this workshop.

    I would start with an educational phase, asking experts from Futurewise, the Carnegie Group, and yes, even the Evergreen Freedom Foundation to address the plenary session. Instead, the ONLY person who was allowed to speak at the plenary was a TRPC staff person. Then I'd move on to a group discussion over what level of growth we want, and what land use policies would be needed to keep development in check if that was less than the current rate of growth. Finally, with a group decision on growth, or perhaps with two or three perspectives, we could split up to discuss where that growth should go.

    That's not what happened.

    I was told by my small group moderator (a person who in real life is a really good guy) that we were not allowed to have a conversation about the underlying assumptions. When I was joined by Scott Roberts, Property Rights Director for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, in a demand that we be allowed to have an open conversation, the TRPC staff swarmed our table. Lon Wyrick, Executive Director of TRPC told our group point blank: "You're not here to discuss the assumptions. You're here to answer the questions, and place the Lego blocks on the map."

    While the group peacefully debated with Mr. Wyrick, I set about assembling the Lego blocks into tall structures, and placed virtually all of the blocks along I-5. Almost none were placed in existing agricultural or forested areas away from the freeway. Mr. Wyrick looked up and saw that our table (mostly me) had finished placing all the blocks, and said: "Oh, it looks like you've placed all the Legos, so you're done." And then we left the table.

    It was a pretty meaningless excersise for many reasons. Most fundamentally (see companion article on population growth) the growth rate that TRPC staff advocated was much faster than even the state's forecast of population growth for Thurston County.

    The TRPC format, which they've used before, is an approach generally referred to as "divide and conquer" in the public involvement profession. They keep the groups small, and make sure there is no communication between groups. They have enough staff around to prevent anyone from changing the dynamic, prevent anyone from getting time at the microphone. In that manner, they keep the discussion limited to their own view of the problem, and their own set of possible solutions. Any attempt to redefine the problem is squelched.

    The Sustainability Summit organized by the Alliance for Community Transition- South Sound, held at Puget Sound Community College on April 14 was much better. It had over 30 community partner co-sponsors, a genuine education function, and a meaningful result.


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