Community Advocates: A Thorn in Your Side? Or an Invested Partner?

by Shawn Hill, Executive Director, Valley Advocates for Responsible Development

Planners and community advocates have a complex relationship. On the one hand, advocates spur community dialogue and increase community awareness. On the other, advocates can be seen as opportunistic rabble-rousers who use conflict to build support for their organizations - and justify their existence.

“The best time to sell war bonds is during a war,” said Jeff Daugherty, the former Planning Director for Teton County, Wyoming. During his tenure, Daugherty’s department was often under fire from local advocacy groups during the drafting of the Jackson-Teton County Comprehensive Plan. The Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Save Historic Jackson Hole, two Jackson, WY-based nonprofit organizations, put the plan front and center in their fundraising efforts, which was key in turning out members of the public to voice concerns about the plan.

Affected community members often turn to local advocacy groups during times of controversy, but what are the long-term effects of local advocacy? When speaking of the role of advocacy groups, “planners should view them as being able to do what they can’t do,” said Randy Carpenter of Future West, a Bozeman, MT-based nonprofit. “We’ve had success in communities where we’ve provided resources that they can use.”

For example, Future West supplied “comprehensive atlases” - compilations of local and regional planning efforts and resources - for Beaverhead and Park Counties in Montana, rural communities with limited resources. In another project, Future West reviewed a proposed TDR scheme for Gallatin County, Montana. After review, Future West found it to be overly complex and unworkable and saved the county many headaches from adopting it in its original form.

Of course, providing free resources to cash-strapped rural governments is hardly controversial. Advocacy groups and government planners can and will often butt heads. My organization, Valley Advocates for Responsible Development (VARD) in Teton Valley, Idaho, has not been shy in challenging the status quo in a community that has historically favored those with certain surnames. Since our formation in 2001, we’ve filed several lawsuits to overturn various planning actions in Teton Valley, and though litigation is a last resort, it is often necessary for planning course-corrections.

“I actually had a county commissioner tell me later she was glad we sued them,” said Dennis Glick, also of Future West. “Though we hate to use the ‘l-word,’ we found that litigation makes governments more careful.” In 2012, VARD sued a local municipality in Idaho to reverse an annexation that would have doubled the size of the town and opened up sensitive wetlands to development.  Anna Trentadue, VARD Staff Attorney, successfully represented the voters pro bono in the four-year court battle which went up to the Idaho Supreme Court and back down again. “In this case, we had a city council ignore a successful citizen referendum, which proved to me that sometimes, one must seek redress in the courts in order to get local governments to act in accordance with community desires and state law.”

Other times, local advocacy groups lead the charge against development proposals that have the potential to alter community character irrevocably. A water slide was proposed on the majestic perch in Jackson Hole where the National Museum of Wildlife Art stands today. An “Olympic training center” with an indoor whitewater park was proposed amongst Teton Valley potato fields by a developer who later was later convicted of mail fraud and sent to Federal prison. “Government planners are required to dispassionately review every application that comes before them within the strictures of rules and regulations. They can’t tell people their development proposals are just plain crazy. Fortunately, nonprofit advocacy groups can” said Trentadue.

But it’s more than filing lawsuits and calling out crazy. Advocacy groups are often the institutional knowledge in community planning. Since VARD’s formation in 2001, Teton County, Idaho has had over ten planning directors, and the implications of past planning decisions are often not known. Advocacy groups are usually created and supported by long-term community members who have seen it all. And because they are created by and for community members, advocacy groups usually have their pulse on community sentiment. Government planning processes are designed to be impartial and oriented toward regulatory strictures. However, planning actions such as conditional use permits, rezones, planned unit developments, and other discretionary permits usually require some reflection of community values in the decision-making process. Here, the role of community advocacy groups is crucial.

Advocacy groups can also provide a long-term perspective that is otherwise lost through staff turnovers or local elections. “Something that advocacy groups have been really helpful with is tying local planning to regional conservation objectives,” said Daugherty. Because government planners are statutorily bound to their respective jurisdictions, it is often up to the advocacy community to stitch the jurisdictions together and facilitate regional cooperation.

Teton Valley and Jackson Hole are economically integrated and often described as “two valleys, one community.” They lie in different counties, different states, and are separated by the steep Teton range. Transportation, housing, and environmental issues extend beyond jurisdictional boundaries, and nonprofit advocacy groups are often the tie that binds in regional collaboration.

To this end, groups like the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, VARD, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative work together to promote regional conservation goals. More recently, the Charture Institute launched the “Tetons 2020” initiative, a collaboration of nonprofits and governmental agencies that seek to objectively measure sustainability in the Yellowstone region. Such efforts would not be possible without nonprofit advocacy groups.

With different perspectives and missions, government planners and advocacy groups will likely butt heads. However, healthy relationships may help overcome temporary conflict and promote long-term, community-based planning solutions. More often than not, government planners and advocacy groups are on the same page; they just may disagree on the immediate course of action. When it comes to the difficulties of planner-advocacy relationships, Daugherty has found that “it’s a trust issue rather than an ideological issue.”

In my experience, trust and the assumption of positive intent on both sides of the planner-advocate dichotomy allows for smart, inclusive decision-making. In cash-strapped rural communities, collaborative relationships and resource-sharing are also essential to good planning, in addition to being a healthy investment in social capital. Despite the complexities of planner-advocate relationships, the simple truth is that we are all invested in positive planning outcomes.

Valley Advocates for Responsible Development

Since 2001, Valley Advocates for Responsible Development (VARD) has been dedicated to preserving natural resources, protecting rural character, and promoting vibrant communities in Teton Valley. For nearly a decade, Teton County, ID grew at an unprecedented rate as one of the fastest growing counties in Idaho and the entire nation. The rapid growth strained every type of local resource, from water supply to wildlife habitat to government capacity. Our approach is a collaborative one. We seek to be a resource for local decision makers and developers, as well as to educate and empower citizens to be involved in the local decision-making process. VARD's staff is comprised of an attorney and two land use staffers, and is overseen by a 9-member board of Teton Valley residents.

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Shawn Hill has been working as a “Mountain Town Planner” for 14 years. After graduating from the University of Utah’s Urban Planning Program, he began his career as a Community Planner in the Park City area. His work continued in Jackson Hole area as the Senior Planner for the Town of Jackson, where he participated in a years-­‐long effort to jointly plan the Town of Jackson and Teton County jurisdictions. Shawn also played a leadership role in the formulation of the Comprehensive Plan for Teton County, Idaho as a member of that county’s P&Z Commission.  After obtaining a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Wyoming, he developed an interest in organizational structure and the role of the public, private, and NGO sectors in community planning issues such as housing. In 2013 he founded Frontier Forward, a Planning and Development firm tasked with facilitating community-driven planning projects throughout the Intermountain West. Shawn also serves as the Executive Director of Valley Advocates for Responsible Development, a Teton Valley, Idaho-based NGO engaged in sustainable and restorative planning.

Published in November 2017

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