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Man on a Commission

In Wayne Senville's new comic strip, city planning is no laughing matter


Published January 22, 2003 at 3:52 p.m.

Workplace dysfunction has "Dilbert." Now city planning has "You Can Plan On It!" City planning? you're thinking. Where's the humor in that?

Whether you know it or not, city planning is integral to our everyday life, shaping the look of our communities and our nation, and the comic "You Can Plan On It!" offers up commentary on the direction we're headed. The first installments poke fun at America's super-size-it mentality -- which starts with fast food and ends with oil tankers -- and the myth that there's no parking downtown.

"I don't view the strip as really too radical," says "You Can Plan On It!" writer Herb Ansprawl, a.k.a. Wayne Senville. The Burlington resident is also editor of the Planning Commissioners Journal, in which his strip recently debuted. Senville, who collaborates on the strip with Darrin Bell, a northern California artist, adds that the strip isn't meant to dis all development. "Certain development is a very good thing," he says. "Development that's poorly planned -- that's what causes the problems."

Fail to plan and you plan to fail. Sounds like boring, schoolmarmish advice, but it's true. Whether you're making your own dinner menu or mapping the route of an interstate, planning forces you to look ahead to what you want your life -- or your community -- to be and then figure out how to get there. For cities and towns, thoughtful planning can mean the difference between a healthy, thriving community and a place plagued by sprawl, congestion and unchecked development -- or worse, a mass migration out of town.

Senville has devoted the better part of his adult life to planning -- first for the National Park Service, then as director of regional and local planning assistance for the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Affairs. In the 1990s he served nine years on the Burlington Planning Commission, including three as chair, and today is on the steering committee for his Neighbor-hood Planning Association. He started publishing the Planning Commis-sioners Journal more than a decade ago, in response to the dearth of materials available for non-professional planners.

"I realized there was definitely a niche market for this," he says. "The articles are written at a more basic level and explain the jargon."

While many communities employ professional planners, in cities like Burlington, planning commissions -- legally mandated boards made up of appointed citizens -- are largely responsible for creating and maintaining their community's special character. These "citizen planners" put in many unpaid hours, creating what's known as a comprehensive or master plan for their communities. This basically documents goals for the town's future that can include such disparate things as transportation plans and requirements for public art.

Some planning commissions also give the thumbs up or down to individual building proposals. (Until recently that was the case in Burling-ton, but two years ago a Development and Review board took over that function.) Senville recently conducted a survey that confirmed what he already suspected: Most commissioners around the country work in real estate, development or law, but few have any professional planning background.

William E. "Micky" Moore, a planning commission chairperson from rural South Hill, Virginia, and a longtime Planning Commissioners Journal subscriber, is a strong proponent of educating citizen planners. "States mandate planning commissions, but there's no money for training programs," says Moore. "People need training and education. They're good people, business leaders and so forth, but they've got no background in zoning and planning."

One of Senville's main challenges is to make sure articles resonate with a nationwide audience, even though state laws vary and the problems of an East Coast city differ from those of a rural midwestern town. He must be succeeding: Each quarter the Journal goes out to 1700 communities as far-flung as Orlando, Florida, and Anchorage, Alaska. In every Journal issue, experts from around the country tackle topics like the history of planning and zoning, ideas for combatting sprawl, and ways to provide affordable housing. Articles also examine legal and ethical matters and give hints on running effective meetings and encouraging community participation.

"There are certain responsibilities that go with being a planning commissioner and knowing that is essential," says Valerie Capels, Montpelier's planning and community development director. "The decisions of the boards affect people's lives and [these decisions] need to be informed and carried out well and thoughtfully."

Senville's childhood on Long Island gave him an early education on development issues, though at the time he had very little sense of what planning actually was. "But I think Long Island made me more sensitive to sprawl and how poor planning operates," he says.

At the University of Minnesota law school, Senville took a yearlong course in land-use law and found himself hooked. "It's interesting be-cause there are so many legal issues involved," he explains. "A lot of planning commissioners become amateur attorneys."

His father's profession as a residential developer on Long Island also played a part in Senville's own career choice. "I think I was partly rebelling against that," he suggests. "My father used to kid me that he was glad he would never have to appear before me on the Burlington Planning Commission. But actually he was involved in good-quality suburban development, and I think the good developers in our area didn't find the commission difficult to deal with."

After law school Senville went to work for the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission in Washington, D.C., but quickly realized transportation law held little appeal for him. He entered a city-planning program at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his Master's degree. A job for the National Park Service, creating a river-corridor management plan for the upper Delaware River, introduced him to an aspect of planning not taught in the classroom: the emotional impact planning decisions have on people's lives.

A provision in federal law gave the park service the right to condemn property if voluntary management guidelines weren't followed. Years earlier, the federal government had condemned a number of homes in order to build a reservoir that would serve New York City -- and then never built the reservoir. The empty homes stood as a bitter reminder of misguided government intervention. Two weeks after the local paper endorsed the park service's management plan, someone burned down the publisher's house.

"The residents didn't want any federal involvement in their lives," Senville explains. "It was eye-opening to [see] how strong local reaction could be to zoning."

Another, less volatile, river-management project brought Senville to Vermont, where he worked with local officials on a management plan for the Battenkill River in Bennington County. That project ultimately helped generate a local land trust.

"That was my introduction to Ver-mont," Senville says. "I loved being here. Compared to New York and Pennsylvania, there was much less bureaucracy and it was so much easier to get decisions made."

To some, America may seem headed toward development hell. McMansions are sprouting up at alarming rates and sales of gas-guzzling SUVs have yet to decline. Bigger is still considered better, it seems. But, Senville points out, "New Urbanism" architects are thriving, too, and in certain parts of the country higher-density development is being embraced by home buyers hoping to contribute to a more sustainable world. "Despite some of the gloomy news, we see lots of people working to keep cities alive," Senville says.

He holds Burlington up as one example of a city where planning has worked. Not only does the city have a thriving downtown, a clean waterfront, and bike and walking paths, but it also boasts an in-volved citizenry. "The city is a wonderful place to live," Senville says. "People really care deeply about the community, from all across the political spectrum." But the rest of Chittenden County, he admits, may be headed in a different direction.

For years Senville has been a vocal opponent of the Circumferential Highway project. He maintains the Web site, and he was recently interviewed for a public television documentary focusing on land-use issues in northern New England. Senville continues to call for alternatives to the Circ, and thinks a comprehensive study is the next logical step.

"People say [the alternatives have] been studied to death," he says. "But it hasn't been studied at all. It's ironic that people who call themselves fiscal conservatives are willing to spend $100 million on road construction but won't spend $100,000 on a study."

Though the Circ may alleviate traffic in the short run, Senville warns that the long-term effects could change Chitten-den County for the worse, spurring development further and further out -- the quintessential definition of sprawl. "Some people who grew up here think sprawl can't happen in Vermont," Senville says.

Something else people think can't happen here: billboards. The next installment of "You Can Plan On It!" takes aim at these eye-sores via the latest marketing craze: turning buses into rolling advertisements. "I think [the strip] will resonate with a lot of people," Senville suggests. "In Vermont we're concerned about billboards, yet shrug our shoulders about plastering buses with ads. I doubt people would be so happy about driving their cars if they were covered with ads.