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LUTS: So, What Is Holding up the Parade?

Blog Archive | March 8, 2007 | By Jim Lively

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Nearly two years ago, 34 people, including yours truly, formed a new community group with a big mission: launch a Land Use and Transportation Study that would allow people in the Grand Traverse region to work together to figure out how they want the area to grow in the coming decades. We were appointed to the LUTS steering committee because each of us is a “community stakeholder” representing a certain group of people with a stake in our community: realtors, environmentalists, business people, government officials, and so on.

Two years later, still no study under way, and people are asking: What’s the big holdup?

Even for many of us on the LUTS committee, the progress has seemed achingly slow—as if we’d never get started.

But let’s step back and consider a little local history.

Just three years ago, the folks who are now working as a team to launch LUTS were bitter opponents in a battle over a proposal to put a bypass, complete with a big bridge, through the Boardman River valley. When the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found that the studies supporting the bridge were flawed, pro-bypassers agreed to work with anti-bypassers to figure out the best way to deal with the traffic congestion that the bypass was supposed to relieve.

So, while everyone saw the wisdom of working together, for the first few months the level of trust in the room was so low that even agreeing on an agenda could take an hour.

Another thing that really slowed us down was the decision to use formal consensus, not voting, to make group decisions. That is because, when your position loses by even one vote, you’re closed out and your voice is silenced because the other side “won.” It doesn’t make for good, cooperative decision-making.

So, I’m proud to say, our group received formal training in consensus, and uses a facilitator who’s expert in the technique.

Consensus takes longer because it requires every member to be in agreement—or at least agree to ‘stand aside’—before the group can adopt a proposal. But we have found that the extra time the consensus process requires actually saves time later by avoiding conflicts later on.

We also had the mixed blessing of $3.3 million in Federal Highway Administration money to fund the study. It’s good money, but it comes attached to both federal and state procedures—including those of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). We managed to navigate those mysterious waters and select a world-class consulting team last November. But we’ve been stuck in a holding pattern ever since, while MDOT bureaucrats who are used to reviewing paving contracts try to understand what it is they need to approve.

Yes, it’s taking a long time. But we’re doing it right.

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