Our View: Update is a tool to be used wisely

The update of the Steamboat Springs Area Community Plan is complete.

The original plan was written in 1995 with the idea that it would be updated every five years. On Monday -- after two years of public meetings and exhaustive work by public officials and volunteers -- the update was adopted by the city of Steamboat Springs and Routt County. We congratulate them on reaching the finish line.

Now that it has been approved, the question is, how should community members, elected officials and planners use the updated plan? Some might argue it is a community mandate that our elected representatives should follow strictly.

We would argue that such an approach is neither practical nor proper. The plan simply is one tool, albeit an extremely important one, to help office holders craft future policies. It is a guide that does not relieve elected officials of their duty to make difficult decisions that are in the best interest of the greater community, whether such decisions fall into what's written in the plan.

The plan update contains 13 chapters, six appendices, dozens of photos, maps and graphics, and more than 100 pages. Its scope is thorough. Among the topics covered are land use, growth management, community design, transportation, open space, trails, housing, historic preservation, economic development and capital improvements.

Any document so broad will allow individuals to focus on pieces to frame debates while ignoring other aspects. And given the public and political process undertaken to write the plan, inevitably the plan will include parts that are conflicting, ambiguous or vague. An example is Routt County commissioners' insistence that "when appropriate" be added to the language directing the location of government services downtown.

We think the public process undertaken to write the update was appropriate; however, it must be acknowledged that such a process allows extreme positions to influence the update -- influence that likely outweighs their representation in the community. Nothing wrong with that, but it's a perspective that must be kept in mind.

Finally, while we might agree with much of what is in the plan, there are several flawed aspects. Some examples:

n Eliminating consideration of the Yampa Street connection, the simplest option for easing traffic from west of Steamboat through downtown, was a mistake that conflicted with advice from planners. As a result, the plan offers no reasonable alternative for addressing the most pressing traffic issue the city is likely to face in the future.

n The plan encourages the conversion of existing mobile home parks from rental to ownership, a gesture designed to appease existing mobile-home tenants at the expense of the property owners. It seems unlikely that the language will be able to salvage mobile-home parks from future development. Instead, it may well raise false hopes among mobile-home-park tenants that the plan supersedes the rights of the property owners and zoning regulations. A better approach would have been to encourage the development of new mobile-home parks, in which residents can own their lots in specific areas, such as west of Steamboat.

The community plan update cannot anticipate changes that will occur in the next 10 years any better than the plan written in 1995 anticipated the changes in the last nine. Thus those who use the plan must remain flexible and open-minded. The plan is an important document that provides a roadmap, a vision and even a conscience for the community. Our elected leaders should keep it handy and use it to guide -- not dictate -- future decisions.

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