True Believers

A few weeks ago I sat through a Spartanburg County Council meeting about land use planning. It was a special session to hear ideas from other communities. The guest that day was a former administrator from Berkeley County who had successfully guided it through a transition to zoning and planned growth. I sat quietly in the back and took notes. Many of those surrounding me were developers, true believers with strong opinions about land use.

“Understand that I’m an environmentalist,” I remember the man saying, “but I’m not a whacko environmentalist.”

The council chuckled and nodded knowingly. It’s 2008 and compared to most civilized regions these Spartanburg County legislators preside over a land use frontier, a backcountry outpost where regulation is minimal and protection is sparse.

I too laughed at the joke, though many of the serious issues close to my environmentalist heart were finally on the table that day and open for discussion: How and where do we dispose of our garbage? How densely do we build? How much population growth is too much? How much regulation is necessary to assure our quality of life? How much land do we set aside in green space?

As I took notes in the back I remember thinking how I wished I could have stopped the proceedings at that moment and held a mini-charette. I would have asked our visitor to clarify how he knows when someone has crossed this imaginary line to his version of environmental “la-la land.”

Was a whacko environmentalist someone who suggested that profit and growth may not be the best primary values in a community? Or was it someone who believed that wild and domestic animals and even forest ecosystems may have rights? Or was a whacko environmentalist, as it was in our community, simply someone who wanted more regulation?

I knew if I was to stand up and state my particular mission that everyone in the room would see that I was one of those whackos that our guest did not include himself among. I’ve often opposed dumps and dams and power plants, and I’ve argued for strict land use codes and development regulations.

“I am a reader of Thoreau, Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson,” I could say. “Their ideas about the earth and our relationship to it have been my primary education. I’ve built my faith from their strong canon.” I knew this sounded I little too much like a street corner preacher. “I am not a whacko,” I wanted to say. “I’m too am simply a true believer.”

Our out-of-town visitor was a get-things-done kind of guy. When asked how he’d brought zoning to his county he explained how he “liked to keep his enemies close” so he could understand their fears, and maybe even neutralize their oppositions.

Now in Spartanburg County we’re finally in the middle of a serious, heated conversation about land use. It’s about time. For 12 years County Council has kept the issue in the legislative shadows.

When the true believers on both side of the aisle actually listen to each other we may find a middle way to go forward. That’s always the challenge with true beliefs-when and where to agree and disagree. Somehow this visitor from out of town seemed to know all this.

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