by Bob Geary
It debuted in draft form on December 1 -- online -- which was at least a month behind schedule and hard against the holiday season. Printed copies of it are scarce to this day. The Raleigh Planning Department conducted three public briefings on it just last week, which was the first time that most of the folks who came -- about 400 total -- had ever seen the new Raleigh comprehensive plan.
And even there, what they saw was an outline and some broad-brush maps, not the thick document itself with its hundreds of pages of analysis, policy recommendations and minutely detailed land-use plan for the city. Folks listened politely, asked a few questions, and when the briefings ended they had a chance to grab a department staffer and pose an additional question or two, which many did.
But four members of the Raleigh City Council think the public's had far too little chance to digest the plan, let alone discuss it with their neighbors in small groups and compare notes, as the official public comment deadline of January 31 approaches. Nor have any of the city's 18 Citizen Advisory Councils (CACs) taken up the comp-plan draft to this point -- though in theory the CACs are the principal avenue for citizen participation in city government, especially planning.
So at this afternoon's meeting, Councilors Thomas Crowder, Rodger Koopman, Nancy McFarlane and Russ Stephenson voted in favor of Crowder's motion to extend the official comment period to the end of February. Four is not enough, however, on the eight-member council. The 4-4 deadlock meant the motion failed.
Opposing a longer public comment period, Mayor Charles Meeker noted that some 300 comments have already been received, from a city of some 380,000 residents, and interested citizens still have nine more days to get their thoughts together. Plus, he said, Planning Director Mitch Silver will continue receiving comments in February, they just won't be considered while the planning staff revises the original draft and issues a new one based on the comments received by the 1/31 deadline. Meeker voted against the extension, as did Councilors Mary-Ann Baldwin, Philip Isley and James West. Meeker said he wants to keep the Council on a schedule that calls for adopting a final plan in June.
West, siding with Meeker, said he hasn't heard any complaints from the public about the plan. Baldwin added that the public will have three more official opportunities to comment -- at the initial Council/Planning Commission hearing in March, before the Planning Commission itself when it takes up the comp plan, and at the Council when the commission returns the plan with its recommendations.
Crowder responded that the first of these hearings is eight minutes "per side" -- pro and con -- and not really a public hearing in the traditional sense that everyone who wants to be heard can be or can offer a detailed critique. And the planning commission's meetings are ordinarily on Tuesday mornings when the public, unless they have the day off, can't attend; similarly, the Council meets on Tuesday afternoons at 1 p.m.
Crowder said five focus groups in his district have been meeting to review different elements of the plan -- land use, transportation, environmental impact, parks and recreation, and arts and culture -- but need more time to take in the document, compare notes and reach conclusions. Part of the process, he said, needs to be a comparison of the new plan to the old one, which over time was amended to include many very detailed small-area plans that protected neighborhood interests. Crowder said one neighborhood in his district contacted him just yesterday in alarm at their discovery that the small-area plan they'd worked so hard on was dropped in the new plan.
Crowder said he'll push now for the planning commission and the Council to hold all of their public sessions on the comp plan at night. It's that important, he, Stephenson and Koopman all said: The plan, they pointed out, will replace one adopted in 1989 -- back when suburban sprawl spread was considered a good thing -- and is intended to be the city's guiding policy document for the next 20 years as Raleigh attempts to turn future development in a dense, urban direction.