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May 10, 2005 > Editorial: General Plans and Planning Generals

Editorial: General Plans and Planning Generals

At least two of our local cities - Newark and Fremont - are preparing to update their General Plan. The General Plan is a development guide and broad outline of a city's vision. At the May 3, 2005 Fremont City Council meeting, staff noted that although various elements of their city's plan have been amended since adoption on May 7, 1991, only the Housing Element, required to be updated every five years, has undergone a comprehensive review.

General Plans are important documents. Cities and counties are mandated by State law to have this plan in place to provide goals for development and how they may be implemented. The text is an official expression of the character of a city (or county) and subsequent development decisions must be consistent with the General Plan. An out-of-date General Plan can lead to serious development issues and legal challenges.

Fremont's General Plan is composed of nine elements including: land use, housing, local economy, open space, public facilities, transportation, natural resources, health and safety, and parks and recreation. Those who have lived in the area since 1991 and many with shorter residency will agree that much has changed within even the past few years. Staff's "Background" presentation notes that although the General Plan's horizon was 2010, "the intended lifespan of the actual document, however, was not intended to be 20 years, but rather in a range of 10-12 years." The General Plan, now 14 years old, will most likely be at least seventeen years from previous adoption when re-adopted since it is estimated that the process will take two or three years to complete.

Local citizen input should be a huge component of any General Plan process. While the complexities of creating this document cannot be minimized, at the root of a relevant plan lies the citizenry. If staff is in tune with its own city, who is better equipped to conduct public meetings and hearings on the matter? While it may require a consultant to guide the construction of a well-written document, the groundwork should be staff responsibility. If staff is unable to communicate with the local electorate, council could look for a community moderator from the local population. Fremont is in the process of coordinating a citywide birthday bash for next year. Why not combine some of these activities and meetings with the need to collect information for a new General Plan?

When estimated two-year costs for consultants total $750,000 and a Project Manager is listed at $360,000, it is time to step back and see if there are reasonable alternatives. Staff time is estimated at $278,000 for approximately 2,780 hours. My calculator puts that at $100 per hour for staff. The mayor noted that project managers typically stay on since they oversee the document and implementation of the General Plan. The last person to do this was Dan Marks. If we pay someone $180,000 per year for this position, what will the salary be after the document is completed?

Although an update of the General Plan is a good and necessary idea, probably overdue, staff cost estimates require a close look by our elected representatives and the public at large. For a city that we are told is in dire financial straits, there appears to be no shortage of funds for consultants.

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