Planning at the local level can make a contribution to the quest for environmental quality in several ways, including the following:

  • 1. Control of the intensity of development
  • 2. Control of the type of development
  • 3. Control of the location of development
  • 4. Public capital investment
  • 5. Control of the operation once development is complete.

An Example of Local Environmental Planning

The issue of what to do about solid waste has bedeviled many communities. Typically, solid waste just from households averages several pounds per person per day. To this is added solid waste from manufacturing, commerce, and the like. Basically, it can be disposed of in landfills, burned, or dumped (though ocean dumping is being phased out under pressure of federal legislation). In general, landfills are not popular with people who have to live near them. Such sites involve truck traffic and may be unsightly or odiferous. Beyond these essentially aesthetic issues, they can often engender real fear in nearby populations. If solid waste is buried in landfills, there is fear of groundwater contamination because acids in surface water or rainwater dissolve pollutants in the waste and carry them into the groundwater. Fears, quite obviously, are even greater if the landfill is to contain toxic wastes. Siting landfills is often more difficult as a political problem than as a technical problem. (This kind of controversy can also occur at the national level; witness the decade-long controversy over nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.)

Incineration causes fears regarding air quality. Reassurances from experts often do not carry much weight with nearby residents. For one thing, it takes a certain amount of technical background to interpret figures cast in terms like "parts per million" or "micrograms per liter." Then, too, there is often some fundamental distrust of the expert. If the town government hires a consultant who tells the citizenry that the planned incinerator poses no threat to their health, there is always the suspicion that he or she is singing the song of those who pay the consulting fee.

Having admitted that the decision on how to dispose of solid waste is politically sensitive, let us look at how the more technical side of the process might be carried out. Very often, a community is propelled into solid-waste planning when the present system begins to look as though its days are numbered. If the community is now using landfill disposal, it may be that the landfill area is now nearly filled to capacity. It may be that the community is shipping its solid waste to a landfill in another municipality, which has indicated that when this waste disposal contract expires it will not be renewed. Or, perhaps, the cost of upgrading the municipal incinerator to meet air quality standards appears to be more than the community can manage.

A planning approach might be as follows.

  • 1. The dimensions of the problem are established. Population and employment projections are used to estimate the probable load of solid waste that must be handled. The present disposal system is examined to see how long it can be expected to function adequately. For example, pounds of solid waste would be converted into cubic yards, and that figure laid off against the remaining capacity of the community's landfill.
  • 2. A preliminary reconnaissance of alternative disposal methods might be undertaken. These are likely to include landfill, incineration, and rail haul. The latter essentially means shipment out of the area to someone else's landfill or incinerator. This alternative is becoming less available as the cry of NIMBY, an acronym for Not in My Back Yard, becomes more common. Within the incineration alternative there are several possibilities. Incineration may be combined with power generation. The heat might be used for generation of electric power or simply to produce steam for heating. In both cases a big question is whether there is a good market for the energy. In the case of steam, the market has to be close by because generally it is not practical to pipe steam for more than 1,000 yards or so. After incineration, various material recovery schemes might be considered. For example, magnetic separation might be used to extract ferrous residues. Other systems might be used for glass and nonferrous metals. Some schemes for disposal of the residue after separation need to be considered. The residue might be buried in landfills. It may be possible to process the unburned residue into a useful product such as construction aggregate if a user who will enter into a long-term contract can be found.

At this stage a final selection cannot usually be made because the costs and risks of each alternative may not be fully known. However, it may be possible to eliminate some possibilities and find some other possibilities that look promising. Consider, for example, the landfill alternative. A common way to approach it would be to make a list of criteria and then find all the sites in the jurisdiction that qualify. Such a list might include minimum site size; minimum distance from residential population; minimum distance from schools, hospitals, or other institutions; minimum distance from streams and aquifer recharge areas; minimum distance from wetlands; area outside of 100-year flood plain; maximum distance from main road; acceptable site geology; and soil characteristics.

3. Cost estimates are developed. For example, site-acquisition costs might be estimated by examination of assessed values of land and consultations with assessors, appraisers, or real estate brokers. Operating costs on the site itself might be estimated by obtaining figures from presently operating sites. Transportation of solid waste to landfills can be a major cost, so this too might be estimated. Recent experience from the municipality itself or nearby communities could be used to obtain an average ton-mile figure.

The community can be divided into a number of "wastesheds," and the distance from the center of each wasteshed to a given site measured. The population and commercial activity are then estimated and hence the ton- miles estimated.

4. Site selection is made. A common way to approach this final step is with some sort of scoring system. A system might assign so many points for cost, so many points for environmental impact, so many points for traffic impact, and so on. Thus potential sites identified in step 3 could be ranked from most to least acceptable. Such scoring systems are not entirely objective, as the matter of what weight one assigns to each consideration is necessarily judgmental. Nonetheless, a point system is a step in the direction of rationality. Then, too, the person who chooses to call its results into question has to state what attributes he or she thinks have been weighted incorrectly. That act in itself forces the participants in the process to be explicit and thus helps clarify discussion of the issue.

These steps are a fairly straightforward technical process. The next step—actually designating a site—is often the most difficult. Even if one site is clearly superior, the process of site selection is far from over, and the choice of site not necessarily determined. In general, opposition from nearby residents may be expected. The opposition may take the form of political and public relations activity—neighborhood organization, protest meetings, letters to newspapers and legislators, and the like. It may also take the form of litigation. The state has an environmental permit system, and groups opposed to the plan may mount legal challenges either on procedural or substantive grounds.

In practice, the location of such sites is often determined by a political process that bears some resemblance to a game of hot potato. In a multijurisdictional body (for example, a county made up of a number of municipalities), such a site may end up in that municipality which is least able to resist it.

Public participation in such a decision is likely to be substantial. State legislation pertaining to the granting of permits for such facilities is likely to require that plans be made public, that hearings or public meetings be held, and that the public be given an opportunity to comment. But even in the absence of any such legal requirements, public participation is likely to be high simply because of a high degree of interest and concern. In recent years many states have passed so-called sunshine laws, which make many government meetings and internal documents open to the public. Thus as a practical matter, most local governments could not get very far in siting such a facility without the process becoming public knowledge. In many cases, the best policy for a local government seeking to choose a site may be to conduct the entire procedure in a very open way. Doing that will not prevent conflict or even feelings of victimization on the part of the "losers," but it will at least protect the government against charges of secrecy and impropriety. A basic rule of politics is that no one likes surprises.

The reader may well ask, "Why go through the procedure outlined if politics is likely to figure so heavily in the outcome?" One answer is that the process, though not entirely rational, is not totally irrational either. One role for the planner—and not just in this situation—is to lay out options clearly and accurately in order to move the decision-making process in the direction of rationality as much as possible. In a democratic society, the planner is only advisory to the elected political body, and it is unrealistic for the planner to expect that his or her advice will necessarily be followed exactly as given. At a practical level, if the actions of local government are challenged in court, there is no better defense than a well-documented, well- researched, systematically arrived-at position.

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