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February 27th, 2008
County looks at comprehensive planning initiative

COMMENTARY by BILL PETERSON
Senior Correspondent

Hays County Judge Liz Sumter told Kyle residents Sunday afternoon that she looks forward to a comprehensive planning initiative. Tuesday morning, the county commissioners court heard a recommendation for a consulting firm to take the lead in developing the plan.

So far, so good.

But there’s a bit of a catch.

The State of Texas allows counties very limited powers for writing ordinances and, therefore, doesn’t provide the leverage for counties to comprehensively plan. The state gives counties no zoning or land use authority. Counties don’t run water or wastewater.

If the county were to work up some sort of land use plan for a stretch of property and a city were to annex that land and put it to an entirely different use, the county would be absolutely powerless to stop it.

Cities can pass home rule charters, enabling them to take any actions not specifically prohibited by the state legislature. However, counties are stuck without that option, so they’re in the same position as general law cities, which can only take actions that the legislature specifically allows.

Counties can build and maintain roads, they can build and maintain parks, they can enforce the state laws and they can provide for public health. But that’s not a comprehensive list of governmental powers. Lacking comprehensive powers, how does a county comprehensively plan?

In other words, a plan that can’t be enforced isn’t really a plan because it lacks the powers of agency. When we make plans, that means not merely that we intend to do something, but that we can do it, both in the sense that we’re allowed to do it and that we have the ability to do it.

But the county can’t make comprehensive plans in that sense.

So, what does a comprehensive plan for the county really mean?

It could be a visionary coordination of the various plans within the county’s purview, a program for identifying consistencies and inconsistencies among numerous initiatives. Or, it could be a cagey politician’s smoke and mirrors, a way of making voters think the county government is up to something big and important while working up a document lacking determinacy or force of law.

The answers will be forthcoming in the next several weeks as commissioners pick through the questions. On March 11, the commissioners will hear a presentation from Knudson and Associates, the firm recommended by a judge-appointed committee to facilitate the plan.

For the record, Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) said in court Tuesday that commissioners should interview more than just Knudson if the county is going to spend serious money on a comprehensive plan. Conley said Knudson isn’t sufficiently experienced locally, suggesting that the firm may not understand the provisions for county government under Texas law.

Beyond the usual disputes about process, though, Hays County citizens could be in for an interesting discussion about the scope and powers of county government. A truly interesting discussion might develop insights about how the county can accomplish certain goals without the tools provided to cities for making them real.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) pointed out Tuesday that the county is working on various long-range plans for transportation, parks and other elements. What, he asked, would a comprehensive plan add to that mix?

Barton, being something of a planning wonk, certainly isn’t hostile to planning. Even if a comprehensive county plan amounts to little more than placing all of the county’s independent plans into one binding, he acknowledged that it might bring time lines and resource allocations into focus. Under the circumstances, though, planning stands to have its limits.

“I think there’s potentially a lot of value,” Barton said after Tuesday’s meeting. “We can talk about what we want Hays County to look like 25 years from now, and I think that’s a constructive role for us to play. We can talk about what sort of service model we should prepare.”

The county might even go so far as to attempt coordinating its plans with those of its constituent cities. But that relationship stands to be a one-way street. Changes in county plans would be trivially interesting for cities, which aren’t obligated to follow step. Changes in city plans could sidetrack the county plans and the county would be unable to prevent it.

Furthermore, cities might humor countywide initiatives in areas where the cities already have handled their own affairs, but enthusiasm is lacking. For example, Sumter recently went to cities and other water players asking for resources to facilitate countywide water planning. Buda and Kyle, which both identified water as a serious problem five to seven years ago, have since worked feverishly to secure long-term access. They’re solving the problem on their own and wish to move on to other problems. They’ve got no interest in backtracking to help communities that drag their feet.

Not only that, but water and wastewater are crucial bargaining chips for cities wishing to influence developments just outside their boundaries. Developers with projects outside city limits don’t have to follow city codes, but if they want city water and wastewater, they have to make concessions for the city. Why on earth would cities sacrifice that leverage for the sake of countywide water planning?

Thus, we’ve only begun to describe the complications involved with countywide water planning. Can the county resolve those complications, then resolve similar complications in other services, then tie them altogether in a comprehensive plan? It’s a long journey.

So, we return to the question of what a countywide comprehensive plan could really mean.

One remembers the notion of a “category mistake” identified by Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of Mind (1949). A category mistake occurs when, for example, one visits a campus, sees the students, classrooms, faculty and dormitories, then says, “But you still haven’t shown me the university.” Of course, the university is not a separate entity. It just is those components, among others. A category mistake is the misappropriation of a concept to a logical category to which it does not belong.

Is the notion of comprehensive planning for county government any more than a category mistake? Can it be any more than the sum of the county’s various plans for parks, transportation and other services?

Because the scope of county government powers is so limited, far more limited than the powers of city government, the prospects for countywide comprehensive planning are rather bleak. But the commissioners court will take a look at it. Citizens might wish to look at it, too, just to be sure they’re not spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a plan in name only.

BILL PETERSON is editor of www.HaysHighway.com where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership with Newstreamz.com.

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6 thoughts on “County looks at comprehensive planning initiative

  1. I’m surprised I had to read down to the 17th paragraph, to see that the county *might* coordinate with the cities.

    I hope this is not a reflection on the level of importance the county places on such coordination.

    It is certainly true that the county has little authority and each city is free to do what they choose, thereby potentially undermining a comprehensive plan. Including the cities in that planning is an opportunity to get everyone on the same page and would likely lessen the chance of cities acting in ways that are counter productive to that plan.

    As someone who makes a living coordinating projects across multiple departments, over whom I have no authority, I can tell you that getting everyone together would only serve to benefit us all.

  2. After observing Judge Sumter’s actions in her first year in office as county judge, I have strong reservations in her ability to demonstrate the bold leadership that would be necessary to bring together the diverse cities and communities in this county to form a unitary vision for the county that should be stated in a county-wide comprehensive plan.

    Moreover, such an undertaking requires the involvement of the mayors and city councils county-wide who she has currently alienated in some parts of the county. Until Judge Sumter can find a way to mend some of these relationships, a county comprehensive plan will be nothing more than Judge Sumter’s vision for the county, spiced with input from her gang o’ gals and more than a dash from O’Dell.

    It would be great if she could pull it off, but to date we haven’t even seen the transportation advisory board even begin to consider working on a master transportation plan for the county. So I am not going to hold my breath. The odds of such a gargantuan task as a comprehensive plan being completed during her term of office are slight at best.

    I only wish she would prove me wrong by acting differently for once.

  3. Energizing the efforts of municipalities, citizens, state agencies towards a multilateral yet unified approach to our accute needs in Hays County Planning requires a steady, levelheaded goto kind of person.

    Sumter turned the Commissioner’s Court into a “cocked hat” in her first year. Sumter allowed Charles O’Dell free reign to impune, offend, lie and villify in the Commissioner’s Court. Rather than unify the court towards a common goal we heard how Barton and Conly would be run out of dodge for not submitting to her whims.

    New leadership needs to set new precidence in order for real planning to take place.

  4. I am left to wonder whether Sumter’s “Comprehensive Plan” will include roads and a real plan for properly financing them. I doubt it since she has pretty much single-handedly set the county back 25 years as far as road planning goes.

    Talk is cheap. Consultants that write plans are expensive. In this case, I hope she is just talking.

  5. Bastrop County recently completed a very constructive planning process that yielded a high quality Bastrop County Strategic Plan document which reflects the voice of the county residents articulated, synthesized, and refined during the past 18 months. I am very impressed with what they are doing. Perhaps we can dialog with some of the people involved in the Bastrop County plan (especially since it is so fresh) to help us design and implement a visioning process that really does pull people together. I know their county is different from our county, and our plan will look different from their plan, but the process they went through, and what they are now starting to do with their county plan, the way they are involving people and engaging people, sure looks like something worth checking out!

  6. It is perhaps a matter of semantics. Judge Sumter should be speaking of a STRATEGIC planning process, not a comprehensive plan. This is exactly what the Bastrop County plan purports to be.

    There is a big difference between strategic planning and a comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan provides the legal justification for establishing a land use plan and the ordinances to regulate the uses on that land. As the county has no power to implement a land use plan and is severely limited in its ordinance-making power, it is misleading to refer to this undertaking as a comprehensive plan. It confuses people as the term “comprehensive plan” has a firm definition within both the professional planning community and for much of the informed citizenry as well.

    I read the Bastrop Plan this morning. It’s not a bad idea, but it has little teeth in it to ensure its implementation (i.e., very little “legal” means for implementation). They did involve the cities in Bastrop County. And Judge Sumter will need to do that to make any such strategic plan a success. I hope she can do this.

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