Master plan—What is it good for?  Absolutely everything!

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: September 20, 2013

Editor’s Note: I’ve been following the town’s effort to re-look at its 1989 master plan and bring it up to date.  Most of us come out of New York City with our personal plans to live a great suburban life—and have no idea that these master plans exist and that towns must and do have them.  I found it hard to understand not just what a master plan it is, but why it matters and why anyone would want to help re-make it.

The Master Plan review is a Big Re-think—part an inventory of where we stand now and part a “vision thing” of where we want to take the town.  New Castle resident Owen Gutfreund, an Associate Professor and Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College, agreed to help me understand what a master plan is.

NCNOW: Nothing I’ve seen so far has made me understand why I should care about having an updated master plan for the town or why I should participate in it.  What are the benefits of having one?

Gutfreund: Think of it this way:  Operating without an up-to-date master plan is like running a business without a business plan.  If you take each decision on its own, based on its own limited-scope merits without carefully thinking about what you’re trying to accomplish in the medium- and long-term , you might unknowingly veer off in a direction that you didn’t intend or don’t want, limiting the long-term prospects of your business.  Or it’s like hiring people without thinking about an organizational chart.

Perhaps this analogy works better:  It’s like choosing your college courses one term at a time, without having thought about a curriculum, sequencing, etc.  Without the master plan, the math courses can end up out-of-sync with the science curriculum needs and objectives, and you might, for example, mistakenly skip basic writing courses while still having electives in your schedule that require good writing skills.

For people who prefer to think in sports terms, the difference between an outdated master plan (in effect, no master plan) and a current one is like the difference between 2nd grade soccer and high school varsity soccer.  At the varsity level, you need to think about defense, transitions, offense, multi-step plays, how to defend when something unexpected happens, using the whole field, pacing, etc., rather than focusing only on where the ball is at the moment.

Notice that none of these advance-planning moves eliminates the need for thoughtful decision-making in each instance afterwards.  Rather, they form a basis for supporting good decisions, and can protect you from bad ones.  And, as in all four analogies, the master plan, too, has to be allowed to adapt to changing circumstances, new information, etc.

NCNOW:  But it seems that each of these actors—the businessperson, the student and sportsperson/player/coach—exercises more direct control and has more, personally, at risk over what could happen than any municipality has. Municipalities don’t, themselves, initiate development.  Instead, they have to wait to for a developer to propose marriage in a project. 

Gutfreund:  Well, that’s the way we’ve been doing it.  But, using your marrying analogy, we’ve been waiting for someone to show interest, then telling them that we wish they were different.  Instead, with a good master plan, we let everyone know up front what we want, and, if they fit it, then they get to proceed. 

NCNOW: Is that what you meant by the ability of an up-to-date master plan to protect a town from making bad decisions?

Gutfreund: Yes, and we don’t necessarily need to wait for a proposal.  Instead, we should hang out a shingle that says to interested parties, “This is what you can do here, this is what you can do there, and if you follow these guidelines you can proceed without a lot of special hearings, variances, and the time and expense they entail.”

It’s not that we do the asking, proposing, or designing.  It’s just that we decide ahead of time what types of things we want and where we want them, then zone for it.

Sometimes towns arrange the process so that anything and everything needs a variance, which is not the right way to plan and zone a town—unless you want to make sure that you can always say “No” to anything.  In that case, the more you say “No,” the less inclined any developer or business person will be to do anything at all—which might be what many residents want, but then they can’t complain about property taxes or struggling hamlets. 

I guess another way to look at it is that the master plan is a better way of inviting good proposals – a way in which we are more likely to get proposals that we like, and proposers are more likely to be able to proceed.

It’s not only a better way for us to figure out and foster what we really want, but it’s also a better way to communicate that to residents and to potential investors and business people.

NCNOW: This reminds me of a book, Data: A Love Story.  In an interview on WNYC in spring, its author, Amy Webb, described how she had refined her use of a popular internet dating service in order to cut more directly to finding Mr. Right.  By really spelling out what she wanted, she made the system work for her and was able to limit interactions with Mr. Wrongs.

Gutfreund: Yes, an up-to-date master plan will spell out right up front what we do want and what we don’t want.  This would have the added benefit of helping town boards to make decisions based on transparent criteria, rather than fear of the lawsuits that sometimes arise from the mixed or confused signals that are an inevitable product of operating without a good master plan.

Long-time New Castle resident Owen Gutfreund is an Associate Professor and Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College.  He is also the author of Twentieth Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape.

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