Survey illuminates shared values, opportunities

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Bonner County is a special place — and like many regions throughout the West, it faces development and growth pressures that could threaten the qualities that make it a wonderful place to live, work, and recreate.

This is why a group of locals formed Project 7B. Project 7B’s mission is to engage Bonner County residents in constructive dialogue about land use planning and to facilitate land use and planning-related collaboration among local entities. The group does not advocate for particular outcomes or policies; it advocates for processes that inform and engage citizens and support entities working together.

I grew up in Bonner County and love this amazing place. Now I live in Utah, where I am the associate director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the University of Utah. Our program promotes collaboration, mediation, stakeholder engagement, and other techniques to address environmental and public policy challenges throughout the Mountain West.

I am a “professional neutral” — my job is to not take sides or to advocate for positions. Instead, I help people work together to address their shared issues. In light of my training in environmental and regional planning and my rural upbringing, I am particularly interested in working with rural counties to help them manage growth pressures, maintain vibrant economies and communities, and preserve the assets that make them special.

I was therefore pleased when Project 7B asked our EDR Program to help them understand perspectives in Bonner County and how Project 7B could help the municipalities, county government, and others make progress on tough countywide issues.

I recommended a situation assessment be the first step, and we secured a grant to support the study. A Situation Assessment is the initial stage of a collaborative process. It involves in-depth interviews with stakeholders representing a diversity of groups and perspectives, allowing us to “take the temperature” of a community and to “shine the mirror” on a situation, revealing areas of agreement and disagreement about issues, and illuminating opportunities and challenges for collaboration. A situation assessment is not a public opinion poll. It is a snapshot of perspectives on an issue, and shows potential paths ahead.

I interviewed 30 diverse Bonner County stakeholders during summer and fall of 2016 and summarized the findings in a situation assessment report, which lays out areas of agreement and disagreement; opportunities and challenges related to growth, land use, and planning throughout the county. The report is on Project 7B’s website (http://project7b.org/). I encourage all Bonner County residents to read it.

Despite talk about how divided people in the county are about land use and planning-related issues, the interviews revealed that people seem to share similar visions and priorities. Folks generally agreed that they (and other county residents) value — and want to protect and enhance — the county’s community feel and cohesion; rural character; water quality and water bodies; and green space, natural beauty, and opportunities for hunting and recreation. They agreed that they, and others, want Bonner County to be affordable for people in all stages of life to live, work, and play. Most also to want a vibrant economy, as well as to develop in a thoughtful, intelligent, orderly, and responsible way that preserves the things that make this area such a wonderful place to live and visit.

In other words, people are much less divided than we assume.

However, interviewees also felt that differing perspectives on private property rights, personal responsibility, and the desirability and inevitability of growth — as well as strong ideological divides — create tensions in Bonner County.

My overall takeaway is that there is surprising agreement about where people want to go, but some differences about how to get there, particularly pertaining to private property rights, and land use planning and policy. Many regions and communities have successfully worked through similar differences to protect, preserve, and enhance the things residents value, such as affordable housing, diverse and sustainable economic opportunities, and open space and clean water.

The situation assessment also revealed that folks in the county see value in communication, coordination, and collaboration among local governments and entities.

Project 7B and I will be working with stakeholders in the next months to explore pathways forward for countywide land use and planning-related collaboration. We hope that residents will participate in keeping Bonner County special.

Watch for information about how you can get involved — and read the situation assessment — on Project 7B’s website (http://project7b.org/). You can also follow Project 7B on Facebook.

Danya Rumore, Ph.D., is the associate director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the University of Utah.

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