In Defense of Uncertainty in the Development Approval Process

by on October 21, 2014 · 1 comment

in Culture, Economy, Environment, History, Politics, San Diego

By /San Diego UrbDeZine

giant question markNobody likes uncertainty.

Certainly not the developers of a billion dollar mixed-use project that encounters community opposition due to traffic impacts. Nor the public transportation agency that runs into fairy shrimp on the future route of a trolley line. Nor the city planners for multifamily housing around a transit station that face a revolt from their single-family neighbors.

Hence, there is a concerted effort by planners and policymakers locally and statewide, to reduce uncertainty in development project approvals. It takes the form of reducing discretion of public bodies, streamlining permit approvals through the use of specific plans and categorical exemptions, reforming the California Environmental Quality Act, and limiting opportunities for legal challenges to projects.

However, what often occurs under the guise of reducing uncertainty for project proponents is shifting that uncertainty to the many other stakeholders in a project.

These stakeholders include elected officials, other regulatory agencies, neighbors, construction suppliers, contractors and building trades, organized labor, community planning groups, neighborhood associations, future residents, future local workforce, nonprofit service providers, and everyone downstream on the environmental impacts of the project.

This shift occurs because there is a cloud of externalities that hovers over most projects, which mushrooms with the scale of the project.

These externalities include impacts on regional employment dynamics, increased load on existing infrastructure, stress on the jobs-housing balance, higher utilization of neighborhood services and public safety, disempowerment of minorities, deficiency of strained community amenities and facilities, burden on sensitive receptors within the radius of influence of the project, destruction of historical heritage, industrial waste and toxic emissions, consumption of natural resources, congestion and pollution from automobiles that drive to and from the project, as well as cumulative impacts of growth such as greenhouse gas emissions.

Process certainty leaves uncertain any outcome that is not hardwired into the ministerial approval process. It is about cost-efficiency for the developer to minimize time and maximize profits. For anyone besides the developer, you don’t know what you are getting, if you don’t already have it in the plan. Process certainty therefore leads to outcome uncertainty for everyone besides the developer.

certaintySo why is outcome uncertainty the flip-side of process certainty? For anyone that is impacted by the externalities mentioned above, they are a legitimate stakeholder, yet not a legitimate party to the transaction. There are virtually no vested rights for anyone else besides the property owner, since externalities borne by others are, by definition, external to the deal.

Process certainty may be harmonious with outcome certainty in small, limited, foreseeable external impacts. It may even enable creative solutions, as in tactical urbanism. But when the externalities are of a scale that cannot be captured and mitigated within precisely defined bureaucratic procedures, they become someone else’s problem. This is because process certainty, by its very nature, eliminates any process that adds uncertainty. Every party or condition, that emphasizes certainty in outcomes, may add uncertainty to the process. The first victim of process certainty is often meaningful public input into a project.

Therefore, the ostensible quest to reduce uncertainty, can in fact redistribute uncertainty from project proponents to all other stakeholders, especially those that are the most vulnerable. Planners become de facto gatekeepers that internalize the positives and externalize the negatives of a project proposal. Public notices and hearings are perfunctory, and steered towards superficial changes.

In his book describing the interactions of individual behavior within social systems, The Politics of Uncertainty, renowned sociologist Peter Marris writes:

“…because the power to control uncertainty is very unequally distributed, the greatest burden of uncertainty tends to fall on the weakest, with the fewest resources to withstand it, and in trying to retrieve some sense of autonomy and control they often compound and confirm their weakness.”

In the planning context, weaker stakeholders are often boxed into opposing projects. The cacophony of the clash that ensues drowns out a rational deliberation of issues like place-based density, housing affordability and community input in smart growth.

When all you have is two minutes at the podium to protect the quality of life for yourself and those you care about, you make a lot of noise.

When all you have is two minutes at the podium to protect the quality of life for yourself and those you care about, you make a lot of noise. And you hope that the process uncertainty makes it necessary for the developer to pencil in your needs. It is this very ingredient of uncertainty in the planning process that encourages deliberation with stakeholders, and makes projects responsive to societal input. And when this tool is severely diminished, it leads to irrational outbursts against planning and zoning itself.

True, not all stakeholders can have their issues addressed completely, for there has to be some optimum balance between the costs and benefits of a project. True, the world of our parents may not be all be preservable, and accelerated growth may not only be inevitable, but necessary to our collective future. True, the ideal project that harms nobody and benefits everybody, may be barmecidal.

Yet, the sporadic surge of process certainty often results in an haphazard approach to addressing regional growth that overtaxes the infrastructure, confuses the nature and scale of density when impacts are not mitigated, restructures city planning and permitting departments in a way that disintegrates the comprehensiveness of planning, uses orwellian terms like “transit oriented development” to rationalize an unwalkable auto mecca adjacent to a little-used bus-line, engenders a lack of trust and often an adversarial relationship between developers and environmentalists on policy matters, to name just a few.

This approach is not sustainable.

The defining characteristic of sustainable development is that it is development plus other societal goals, particularly with respect to the environment, economy and equity. It is therefore critical to include process uncertainty within the planning process to encourage deliberation in reconciling these tenuous goals at a project-specific level.

People-centric planning for sustainability involves addressing geo-social and economic imbalances within a community.

When a project encounters a sufficient quantum of process uncertainty, it merits appropriate political interest and resources for deliberation. On the other hand, if a public agency offers a streamlined development approval process without accurate assessment and liability of the socioeconomic impacts of new development, it is shifting that outcome uncertainty from the developer to the community. From the developer’s perspective, there is no incentive to deliberate.

Equity1People-centric planning for sustainability involves addressing geo-social and economic imbalances within a community. This motivates greater engagement of the community in the planning process and becomes a vehicle for empowerment. As redistribution of power occurs, it leads to a deeper consideration of equity within the planning process. Thus the wheel of equity turns, and builds momentum for greater sustainability in future growth (see figure).

Planning for sustainability also involves recognition of the fact that not all projects will pencil out when the major issues are resolved. Uncertainty acts as a sieve for separating the wheat from the chaff, in terms of developing projects that are truly sustainable. Process uncertainty is thus the price that society pays for outcome certainty.

As planners strive towards greater certainty in terms of sustainable outcomes from development, process uncertainty needs to be managed, not eliminated. An inclusive process for a project decision partners with stakeholders in a way that Peter Marris describes as “a more hopeful politics of collaboration and reciprocity.” In defense of process uncertainty, it gets us deliberating about the world we want our children to grow up in.

Author’s Note: This article is based in part on The Third E: Equity as a Condition of Sustainability, and Beyond the Limits to Planning for Equity.

Murtaza H. Baxamusa, Ph.D., AICP is a certified planner, writer and thinker. He develops affordable housing for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corporation, and teaches urban planning at the University of Southern California (USC). He has over 12 years’ experience in economic development and sustainable urban planning, and has previously worked for the USC Center for Economic Development as well as the Center on Policy Initiatives. He has doctoral and master’s degrees in Planning from USC, and a bachelor’s degree with honors from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

sean M October 24, 2014 at 11:29 am

Uncertainty in the approval process is mainly a disadvantage for small and medium sized developers who can’t afford to have their capital tied up as their competitors’ Astroturf organizations, labor groups and nimbys repeatedly contest filed environmental impact statements in court. Deep pocketed institutions like rules that keep smaller players out of the market. Political contributions are a sound investment for reducing uncertainty.


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