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Tattered Tapestries 

What's being done to Huntersville is a crime

Take two simple words, Regional and Planning. Put them together and you create one of the most contentious concepts in American public life. When I work in communities and suggest collaborative visions for future growth, there's always a vocal section of the public that loves to insult me. My favorite epithets so far have been "Australian socialist" and "United Nations spy."

This last barb was hurled at me by a strange chap who thought planning for greenways in Gastonia was a prelude to invasion of the town by UN troops. Black helicopters would disgorge foreign soldiers who would take over the town by sneaking up the greenways behind the houses while true patriots watched the street out front through the sights of their AK-47s.

This is extreme, but Americans do distrust regional planning as a concept. It didn't used to be like this. In the 1920s, America led the world in regional planning. Nowhere in Europe was there an intellectual match for the work of the Regional Planning Association of America, and while London was sprawling across the English countryside in the 1930s, Roosevelt's New Deal administration was planning self-contained new towns defined by green belts of preserved farmland as an economic development strategy. But it couldn't last. President Roosevelt's chief planner, Rexford Tugwell, was called far worse things than the insults I'm used to. Being branded a traitor was one of the milder aspersions cast on his character. Congress somehow equated regionalism with communism and killed the project stone dead.

Since the 1950s, other democracies have developed civilized systems of coordinated regional planning, picking up the mantle discarded by America. In my UK home, for example, Tugwell's vision became the model for the British new towns. Now, each British county -- broadly equivalent to a US state (much smaller in area but not necessarily in population) -- is charged by central government to create an overall "structure plan" that covers a large area and delineates broad-based strategies for transportation, school building and other infrastructure, economic development, and the amount, location and type of all new development. Also important are energy and environmental issues, landscape preservation, historic building conservation, and concordance with national policy on sustainable development.

Woven into these large plans like details in a tapestry, "local plans" for each community focus on smaller areas and illustrate more detailed proposals for specific sites and buildings. Local governments are required to follow these plans in judging new developments, and in most cases approval is forthcoming only if the proposals align with the plan. So what gets built in one town usually fits neatly with what is constructed in the adjacent community. Farmland adjoins farmland, and new pieces of towns fit together like a complex jigsaw puzzle. Mistakes happen, but broadly speaking the system works. It's based on collaboration across a geographic region rather than the competition and discord across city boundaries that characterize American methods.

A frustrating example of the inability of our communities to make common cause is illustrated by a current conundrum in Huntersville. West of I-77 lie broad swathes of open land, with only one north-south road, the old and characterful Beatties Ford. The town of Huntersville has worked hard for many years to retain the rural character of this area, but they were hampered by Mecklenburg school planners (who never consult with anyone) and who dealt a huge blow to these ambitions by locating two large new schools in this rural area instead of closer to town, sharply increasing traffic volume on the narrow roads.

Still, Huntersville persevered, working with existing landowners who wanted to keep farming their land and preserving it for future generations. Then came plans for NorthLake Mall, eagerly approved by Charlotte-Mecklenburg officials just south of Huntersville's rural haven, at the intersection of I-77 and the outerbelt. This outdated mega-mall promises to pave over hundreds of acres, cause more pollution, and generate thousands of new car trips each day, just so shoppers can enjoy the latest hyped-up version of generic mass-marketing. And it dooms a decade of diligence by Huntersville.

New roads will be needed to handle the traffic, and one new thoroughfare in particular is planned to rip its way through the pristine farmland, like a huge tear in the fabric of planning. The highway will dissect property and force farmers to sell by making it impossible to work the land efficiently. Development will follow, eviscerating Huntersville's plans, and making the town just like any other in America.

For a decade, Huntersville tried to be different, tried to be itself, and led the region in advanced planning and zoning. Charlotte-Mecklenburg officials, who never bothered much with their smaller neighbor to the north, will ruin that good work by their careless pandering to developers who couldn't give a damn about regional thinking or weaving plans together to create a great communal pattern. It's a tragedy. In America, the land that gave birth to regional planning, the tapestry is tattered.

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