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Examining Growth 

by Kevin Taylor, & r & I had a weak moment," says Kootenai County planner Rand Wichman, about his agreement to take part in a series of workshops that promise to reveal the mysteries of planning and zoning. Joyce Bergen of the League of Women Voters says a sense of weakness -- as in powerlessness -- is one of the key topics the workshops intend to confront. The League and the Kootenai Environmental Alliance are sponsoring the series of Monday afternoon workshops, which begin Sept. 12 at the University of Idaho's Coeur d'Alene campus.

The sessions will feature professional planners such as Wichman and Dave Yaden of Coeur d'Alene, organizers of successful neighborhood groups, attorneys, former elected officials and academics who have studied the good and bad ways communities have dealt with growth.

Growth is booming in North Idaho, with subdivisions sprouting like invasive weeds on the once bucolic Rathdrum Prairie and houses on ridgelines marring what once was a green skyline of conifers. And any leftover inch of waterfront property is being developed. With such growth comes higher taxes, higher traffic volumes and, by people paid to watch such things, a nervous eye on the treated-effluent totals allowed into the Spokane River from city sewer outlet pipes.

In a blur of strip malls, Wal-Marts and railroad refueling depots, it's easy to feel growth is chaotic and inevitable, that ordinary people don't have a place to voice concerns. Or that anybody who does object to growth will be labeled as a granola-crunching former Californian. No wonder people give up.

"The League of Women Voters is very active in civic participation in government," Bergen says. "Over the years, we have gone to planning commission meetings and found no one there to speak but us."

Bergen says the workshops are not anti-growth, but are intended to help people speak effectively at public meetings to help shape the way the area grows.

"I think it's good to get people to understand the process better and how to participate in it more effectively," Wichman says. "My sense is there are lots of people who have angst about what's happening in the community, a resignation that this is what's going happen to us and we can't change it."

He says planners find themselves in a schizoid existence: One of the goals of the profession is to make sure community interests are being furthered, but then when a planner leaves school and gets a job, "the direction from elected officials is that developers are your customers and you are here to take care of them. The goals of serving both community members and developers "are not necessarily mutually exclusive," Wichman says.

Bergen says the workshops will help all residents feel they are customers, too. She cites two questions the workshops intend to answer: "What can I do?" and "How can I make this a better place?"

Workshops will be held every Monday from Sept. 12-Oct. 31 from 3:30 pm-5 pm at the Coeur d'Alene campus of the University of Idaho. Contact Joyce Bergen, League of Women Voters, (208) 699-5198, or Carol Sebastian, Kootenai Environmental Alliance, (208) 667-9093.
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