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Harlan: General plan update should be a call for vision

June 09, 2012|By Jeffrey Harlan

With little discussion, the Costa Mesa City Council awarded a $665,000 consulting contract Tuesday night to update the city's general plan over the next 18 months.

Although this project has flown under the radar, its importance cannot be underestimated.

As the city's blueprint for growth, the general plan should clearly articulate the community's expectations — how and where we want to develop — so that those who desire to build and invest in Costa Mesa know what kind of standards the community has established.

Frequently, the general plan is used simply as a basis to approve or deny a development proposal. However, as the city's seminal policy document, the general plan should do much more than that. It should help guide the city's decision-makers in all matters of governance, not just those related to land use and development. It's an important tool to be actively used by our elected officials and city staff, as well as developers and the community.

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Unlike typical general plan updates, which comprehensively address a range of state-mandated and elective topics, this particular effort only targets the city's land use, circulation and housing elements.

Having managed and helped craft a number of general plans for California communities, I am apprehensive that such a piecemeal approach runs the risk of being shortsighted, costly and disjointed.

It is critical, therefore, to establish a firm foundation on which to build the general plan and its component parts.

The first step in the update process for the community is to define a vision for how it would like to grow and develop over the next 20 or so years. The vision is the underpinning for all of the subsequent planning and analysis, from the development of a land use and circulation plan, to the creation of topical goals and policies, to the identification of specific actions to implement the plan.

Planning for the long term is difficult. It's hard for people to disengage from the narrow issues of today and their own parochial interests, and instead think broadly about the future and the next generation of Costa Mesans.

This is why great care and time should be taken to engage a wide range of people — residents, businesses, children, students, seniors, developers, social service agencies and community organizations — in soliciting input and getting people invested in the process.

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