November 19, 2009

Planning a shoreline project? Win over the public first

  • Inviting the community into the design process can help grease the wheels for permitting.
    BC&J Architects


    As the health of the Puget Sound gains more mainstream media attention, development along its edges and within its watersheds has become more sensitive than ever before.

    Private and public developments typically undergo rigorous scrutiny by at least five state agencies over the course of planning and implementation. These agencies may include the local planning department, the Army Corps of Engineers, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington State Department of Ecology and local Native American tribes.

    All these agencies have some measure of jurisdiction and requirements that are thrust upon projects. Those who administer policy and work in these agencies usually have the best of intentions for the work they are doing.

    The inclusion and interpretation of all the input received from various agencies, however, usually conflicts on a number of levels, including both environmental and human. Moreover, there exists no efficient coordination of protocol that allows an author of a project to move through a permit process in a sensible manner.

    The administration of policies and regulations usually rests on the desk of the local planner working for the municipality that has jurisdiction over the project. It is typically up to this individual to inform the applicant what will be required for that project.

    Therein lies the conflict. Often this individual does not have the knowledge to understand every agency’s requirements and what it takes for an applicant to put the pieces together to accommodate the goals and desires of a project.

    This lack of understanding can cause a significant measure of frustration for an applicant, erode trust and generate a pall over a project, resulting in a less than expected result for both the environmental and human occupancy factors. This is most common in projects not intended for public use, such as a private marina or private waterfront resort.

    Gather stakeholders

    In order to alleviate the effects of a negative permit result, community design involvement — also known as stakeholder building — at the outset of a project becomes critical.

    A negative result can be mitigated by inviting adjacent property owners, community residents and local community committees to be a part of the design process. These stakeholders become “owners” of statements they make or opinions they voice in group meetings.

    If coordinated properly and with respect, the result can be a project that is submitted into the permit process with support already in place. The extreme end of this approach would be exemplified by stakeholders exhibiting an urgency and need for a project to be permitted. Not the other way around.

    Key techniques to the art of place-making involve truly understanding a community’s values. The most efficient manner in which to accommodate and enhance environmental conditions is to present these elements through initial design drawings at an applicant-sponsored open house.

    Guiding the process

    The open house should be well publicized and available to the public for commentary and opinion. It is critical to the development of an honest and successful community dialog for the open house to become the initial public meeting, and to offer interested local community members a chance to engage in public study sessions.

    The study sessions are generally set up in either a public charette method or through scheduled public meetings. In many cases the public involvement process is a combination of both methods.

    The charette method is a public design workshop that is intended to clarify goals and desires of the project. The process is organized to generate a design concept based on a set of common community values. The design adjustments made during a charette to a scheme initially presented in an open house are important as they reflect direct voicing of public input.

    Both methods usually prove very successful in developing stakeholder buy-in, accommodating underlying project goals and protecting the environment. Keeping a member of the local planning department that has jurisdiction over the project engaged in these early steps also aids in the development of an application. The assimilation and integration of the public input generally becomes an excellent framework for a successful application.

    The majority of the public has not been through a design process of this kind and has very little experience with charettes. Authors of a design or an application must be ready to allow the approach to change in order to accommodate the public’s involvement in the design process.

    In a sense, the applicant becomes the facilitator guiding the direction of the process so that it maintains its purpose and comes to a proper conclusion. Allowing conflicting stakeholder input to be vocalized in the forum during a public design meeting has the opportunity to engage lively debate and, if handled properly, draw to a result that has the best interest of the goals for the project in mind.

    Find common ground

    Most shoreline or watershed projects have multiple topics to debate and accommodate. The facilitator must be capable of bringing the larger vision back to the conversation and ensuring a comprehensive conclusion.

    This is no easy task when views of individual stakeholders are diametrically opposed and full of passion. When this becomes the case, the facilitator must find common ground and base the resolution on sound environmental and user goals.

    Fortunately for land use professionals in the Puget Sound area, there already exists a common ground with the public and state agencies on issues of the importance of the interconnected nature of the Salish Sea (Puget Sound, San Juan Islands, Gulf Islands, straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca). The debate is in the details of how this common ground is to be accommodated and the waterways enhanced. By employing advanced civil engineering techniques in stormwater management and incentivizing green building and site work assemblies, we stand poised to address changes in the region that will reset the course for how waterfront developments are to be implemented.

    The truly exciting part about using the process described above to develop watershed and near-shore projects is the culmination of several points of view. These different perspectives should include the public in the implementation of positive initiatives to maintain our communities, benefit and protect our sensitive environment and guarantee the Salish Sea will continue to thrive for future generations.

    Peter Brachvogel is a principal at BC&J Architecture, Planning and Construction Management on Bainbridge Island. The firm specializes in waterfront residential and community projects.

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