Editorial – A better way to shape city’s future

Published 5:55 pm Tuesday, July 19, 2022

We’re heartened by current citizen engagement in important planning and zoning decisions awaiting city leaders. See Christy Cordova’s letter to the editor elsewhere on this page as an example of thoughtful input and activism.

The system is working just as it should, with both appointed leaders (the Planning Commission) and elected leaders (City Council) required to listen to citizens at public hearings before making decisions that will forever affect Suffolk and its citizenry.

However, we must reiterate a point made previously in this space. It’s easy to get citizens to fill the room for a public hearing on a controversial rezoning or conditional use permit. We get it. Few of us want anything in our neighborhood that would detract from our quality of life, much less potentially harm our property’s value.

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Yet, citizen engagement is much less robust when it comes time for a community to update its comprehensive plan — arguably the time to have a much more meaningful impact on land use decisions.

In fact, the best time to have a say on how and where Suffolk grows is right now, as city leaders work on the first update of the community’s comprehensive plan in seven years.

The 20-year plan, according to Planner Alexis Baker, is designed to be a long-range guide for a number of areas, including land use, housing, transportation, parks and open spaces, public safety, schools and economic development.

To their credit, leaders are actively seeking participation from the citizenry.

“You know your city and community the best,” Baker said in May when the process began. “Your input is essential to our work and will help shape the plan.”

The process has the noble goal of producing a roadmap “that will maintain Suffolk’s quality of life while allowing for growth,” Baker said.

There are lots of opportunities for citizens to get involved: in-person focus groups on specific topics, and online through the project’s website, www.Suffolk2045.org.

It’s human nature to get worked up over a specific commercial or residential development, and the citizens who let their voices be heard during related public hearings are certainly within their rights to do so. They often fail, though, getting a hard civics lesson in the process.

The new comprehensive plan is a much more important opportunity for citizen input. To say that a community is at a crossroads is an overused metaphor, but it’s safe to say that city leaders’ planning decisions, including the content of the new comprehensive plan, will be consequential long beyond their time in office. Officeholders come and go, but citizens remain to enjoy the successes or cope with the errors of elected and appointed leadership.

If you’ve had only a casual interest in local government over the years but care deeply about the future of Suffolk, this is the time to get more engaged.