Colin Fiske: Gateway Area planning brings equitable, whole-town benefits


Let’s make a plan…and stick to it! The City of Arcata’s draft Gateway Area Plan has received a lot of attention over the last few months for its approach to development in one neighborhood of the city. Among other things, some people are worried because the plan would allow new buildings to be built without review by the Planning Commission or the City Council— as long as they meet all the requirements laid out in the plan.

This is called “ministerial” or “by right” approval, and it’s already how the process works for many building projects. In other words, if you want to build something that meets all the local requirements of the zoning code, most of the time you can do that without any public hearings. The Gateway Area Plan would extend this principle to larger projects which provide added community benefits. That might sound like it’s cutting the public out of important decisions, but it’s not. In fact, it’s making the process fairer and more inclusive. The draft Gateway Area Plan is based on several years’ worth of public planning and visioning meetings.

It is currently being publicly reviewed at many additional meetings, tours, farmers markets, and civic gatherings, and is the subject of countless surveys, emails, and discussions with public officials.

Planning staff are conducting active outreach across the city, including to groups that are usually underrepresented in public decision making.

In contrast, the procedure for approving individual building projects — when they require a public process at all — often involves only one or two hearings. Usually these are sparsely attended, and relatively few people even know about them.

Even for controversial developments whose hearings pack City Council chambers (or Zoom rooms), the number and diversity of people weighing in is always much lower than the population that’s participating right now during the development and review of the plan.

What’s more, the relatively small number of people who show up for a specific project often have vested personal interests in the outcome, and those interests may or may not align with what’s best for the community. In other words, not all public processes are created equal. The final Gateway Area Plan will be the outcome of a much more comprehensive and equitable process than any individual project could hope to achieve. The result will be a clear set of rules about what can and cannot be built in the Gateway Area, rules that represents as closely as possible the vision and needs of the entire community. That’s why it makes sense for the plan to be largely self-executing, rather than relying on extra opportunities for intervention with each project. Once we’ve invested so much in making a good plan, it’s only logical that we should stick to it.

Colin Fiske is executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities.