Traditionally, the states have empowered local governments to develop plans and implement regulations for neighborhood and community development. When accomplished at the local or regional level, the interests and benefits of the community as a whole are to be weighed against the detriments to individuals. Much has been studied and written about the lack of meaningful public participation in the planning and land use regulatory process, suggesting that often low-income and minority communities are not fully engaged in the process, even when it may result in decisions negatively impacting their neighborhoods. Case studies have also shown that governments are sometimes so eager to stimulate local economic development that they fail to fully engage communities in the project review process, both to expedite development and to avoid confronting local opposition. This emphasis on short-term economic growth, however, may obscure a local government’s perception of the social and environmental needs of particular communities. When this occurs, formal planning processes have failed to accomplish their goals of engaging community members and guiding future growth in a manner that maximizes long-term benefits for the common good.
New approaches to planning provide one response to systemic public participation problems. The environmental justice movement, for example, has sought to ensure a fair distribution of both environmental burdens and environmental goods by requiring local governments to make meaningful public participation available to all community members. Community based planning efforts have attempted to improve the planning process by focusing on small and distinct geographic areas and by developing collaborative and inclusive planning programs. Since the late 1990s, community benefits agreements (CBAs) have offered another method to increase community input in the development planning and review process. For communities that have historically been excluded from the planning process, CBAs can be a powerful tool to ensure that neighborhood interests are addressed as an integral component of development. The result, ideally, is growth and development that is accountable to the people it affects and equitable in its distribution of benefits and burdens. However, the people it affects are often a small subset of the municipal jurisdiction and the equitable distribution sought in the CBAs is limited to the proposed project area.
This article explores how the comprehensive planning process and CBAs complement and contradict each other, and how both could be improved by innovative and more inclusive planning techniques. Part II provides a brief historical background on comprehensive planning and community development, including issues relating to community planning and public participation. Part III examines CBAs and their role in community empowerment, community development and the promotion of social justice principles, including equitable development. This part also provides examples of typical land use related elements found in existing CBAs. Using these examples, Part IV segues into a discussion regarding whether private CBAs usurp the public planning process. The section explores whether CBAs are just another type of community based plan and whether CBAs advance narrow interests at the expense of the larger community. The question of what local governments should do when presented with a CBA that is inconsistent with the local comprehensive land use plan is examined to determine whether amending the plan to incorporate the community vision as articulated through the CBA is appropriate. The article concludes in Part V by pointing out that shortcomings of the current regulatory system allow local governments, intentionally or inadvertently, to exclude robust public participation from the development and implementation of comprehensive land use plans. This provides the impetus for privately negotiated CBAs, but these agreements may not always be ideal because not all parties to a CBA will have the best interests of the neighborhood or the community as a whole at the forefront of their agendas. While many CBAs have been successful, a number of case studies also reveal pitfalls in the process. The article concludes with the belief that local governments must be more inclusive and accountable in the public planning process to better meet the true goals of the community benefits movement.
18 J. L. Pol'y 157 (2009)
18 J. L. Pol'y 157