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Thursday, July 18, 2024

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What Makes a Plan a Plan?

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The county recently extended the public comment period on its almost 300-page draft Comprehensive Plan. The document was set to be adopted at the November meeting of the county Planning Board, but lack of a quorum pushed any adoption vote to January.  

What is the public to make of this behemoth? We are told in a section of the document that the plan “can be used to promote sustainable and resilient growth and economic development in Cape May County.” One might expect a vision for the county a decade out, or a discussion of critical projects to be undertaken complete with proposed schedules and benchmarks, but if that is what you expect, it is not what you will find in the Comprehensive Plan.  

The creation of the plan document is a statutory requirement, a responsibility the county has because it elected to set up a county level Planning Board. In New Jersey, a county level board is not mandated. Planning boards deal almost exclusively with land use decisions and those decisions in our home rule state are the province of local municipalities, all 565 of them, but we established a county Planning Board, and we have a new iteration of a county Comprehensive Plan. The last one was produced 10 years ago. 

The members of the public present for the November meeting of the county Planning Board were told the Comprehensive Plan, for all its bulk, is not a strategic plan. It is devoid of project definitions, schedules, and funding discussions. The projects mentioned are already completed and are meant to be illustrative.  

We were also told that the plan references more specific plans that are properly meant to guide action agendas. The best example of that structure is the reference in the Comprehensive Plan to the county’s Hazard Mitigation Plan Update 2021, which is supposedly the place where the interested public can go to find out how the county will address the threats of severe weather, sea level rise and other similar dangers. Volume I of that plan is 929 pages and it does not deal with the specifics of how each of the county’s municipalities expect to address the issues. For thatthere is Volume II at 859 pages.  

Stay with this for a moment. In Volume II, each municipality spells out risks and proposed solutions that will address those risks. Take the 49 pages devoted to Stone Harbor as an example of these municipal planning documents.  

The borough plan tells the reader that most of the development that has occurred and is forecast is in Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA), which is not a surprise for a barrier island community. It goes on to list all its subordinate plans, of which there are a multitude, most required by federal or state agencies. Finally, on page 20, the reader gets the borough’s proposed initiatives. They present the hazards that need mitigation – an example being the retrofit of critical facilities to prevent flood damage.  

What, when, how, who and how much are the questions that come immediately to the readers mind.  These are the same questions any member of the public would have who ventures into this set of interconnected plans at all levels.  

Flood hazard mitigation is just one of the areas in the Comprehensive Plan. Yet, pulling that one thread almost takes the sweater’s sleeve off without providing the specifics a member of the public might need. The public is still left, after examining numerous, ponderous documents, with no assurance that all of it adds up to what would be called a plan.  

What needs to be done, when, who is in charge, how will it be handled, and what is the estimated cost? These are the questions that plans answer. Where is the multiyear capital plan that will prevent other projects from usurping funds needed for those projects deemed more critical? The county’s bridge plan is an example of a planning document that tries to address these issues, but there is more to be done than rehabilitating bridges, as crucial and expensive a set of tasks as that is.  

One problem is that most of the planning documents are mandated by federal and state agencies and must meet the format and informational requirements of those agencies. That often makes them poor public documents. It also often allows them to obfuscate who has responsibility and how the public can measure progress or success. Even the title – Comprehensive Plan – is a dictate of statute.  

Good people did much hard work to produce this Comprehensive Plan. It is a document that contains much in the way of useful data and information. It represents an attempt to go beyond the mere statutory requirements that give rise to it. We are told that it is meant to “inspire” local municipalities where land use decisions are most often made.  

For all of this, the Comprehensive Plan is another long document that fails to present a vision of where the county should be in five or 10 years. It does not lay out action agendas nor fix specific individuals with responsibility for those action agendas.  

If this is not the document to lay out that vision, where is that document? Where is the plan, accessible to the ordinary member of the public, that tells where our elected leaders are trying to take us? 

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From the Bible:  – “What king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” From Luke 14 

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