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What can it mean?

Editor at Large

SAN MARCOS – Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) 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.