Considerations about “building a better community” might first start with the definition of “better” which depends on who you are talking to. Diverse needs and preferences span the gamut everywhere including Volusia, a county of over half a million residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of which, 52% are in the civilian labor force; 28% are 62 years old and over; 13% are Hispanic or Latino; 24% have no college degree; and, 16% live below poverty level. The wants and demands of this varied population are all important to understand to ensure a community is moving towards a universal “better” particularly when it comes to tackling big issues like transportation and growth.
A recent survey by the regional transportation planning organization, River to Sea Transportation Planning Organization (R2CTPO), showed 48% of people walked or biked three or more times per week. Therefore, to design better road systems, pedestrians and bicyclists should be kept in mind. R2CTPO, as the duly constituted body responsible for carrying out the urban transportation planning and programming process for Volusia and parts of Flagler, tries to ensure these federal and state networks meet the needs of all. “We have a committee dedicated to walking and riding a bike as these are integral to the community’s means of transportation,” shared R2CTPO Executive Director Lois Bollenback.
The R2CTPO has other advisory committees including a Citizen Advisory Committee (CAC) and a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). The purpose of the CAC is to hear from residents about transportation issues. “I feel it is important to present as much feedback from actual citizens using the transportation systems to ensure actual needs are met,” said Nora Jane Gillespie, Chair of the CAC. Because of committees like the CAC, input can be provided directly to the Transportation Planning Organization who are able to coordinate with appropriate authorities to resolve a range of issues, including safety. “Safety is a top priority for the R2CTPO and by facilitating dialogue in these meetings we hear how we can improve the area around us,” stated Colleen Nicoulin, a senior planner for R2CTPO and the staff assigned to the CAC.
Current residents of Florida may be experiencing consternation at the continuous growth happening around them. Florida is now the third most populous state in the nation surpassing New York, which for years held the third spot. Volusia continues to be an enviable location in the state with its beautiful beaches and abundance of natural resources. Growth projections for the state and county consistently show increases in population while decades of case law protecting property rights means growth cannot legally be stopped altogether. Attempts to halt growth take the focus away from necessary planning efforts to adapt to growth and efforts to build a better community.
Patrick Opalewski, General Manager, VeeCor Property Management and current Chair of the Volusia/Flagler Association for Responsible Development (VCARD) commented, “A fundamental principle needs to be accepted: Florida is going to continue to grow; Volusia and Flagler counties are going to continue to grow. Projections from the state or private consultants confirm this growth trend for the foreseeable future and the impacts of this growth are going to be felt by all of us.”
VCARD was incorporated in July of 1987. In its formative years, the organization worked with local governments to address emerging state regulations regarding growth management and the environment. Volunteers monitored proposed regulations to determine the effect said regulations had on the public and on land development. The group participated in various study boards, planning groups and governing bodies to make recommendations in the public interest. Opalewski shared, “The group continues to work to foster common understanding about where, what and how we build. This shared understanding leads to more productive dialogue about how we grow and ensures we are building a better community.”
Dialogue and exchange of information leads to better communities. And this requires participation – by citizens, business and civic organizations, and local governments. With 420,555 people living within one of the 16 cities of Volusia County, local city governments have a major role in ensuring participation by their citizens. All cities and counties in Florida are required by state legislation to adopt a comprehensive plan that considers future land use and growth patterns. These plans require several public participation sessions so that details of the plan address actual resident concerns and desires.
The past several years have seen an increase in town hall-style meetings. Ormond Beach hosted a series of workshops branded “OB Life” and covered topics such as transportation and resiliency planning. “We wanted OB Life to really reflect the sentiment of our local community,” explained Joyce Shanahan, City Manager. Another city, New Smyrna Beach, hosted meetings in each of their commissioner districts so that elected officials could hear from the electorate. And new development requires some level of public notice and engagement. A revitalization project in Downtown Daytona Beach, to include multi-family housing and retail, had to go before a planning board for approval and then the city commission. These are opportunities for public comment.
Chambers of Commerce also provide a platform to learn about topics impacting the community. The Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce has covered important issues such as transportation, homelessness, affordable housing and the like for years through their Eggs & Issues program. They also shed light on what is happening in Tallahassee at the state Capitol through their Tallahassee Speaker Series. These forums for discussion are critical components to building a better community.
Ultimately, in a county comprised of 1,043 square miles, the only way to build it “better” is to engage those within it. In dialogue, participants can question and reevaluate assumptions. Brainstorming together can lead to collective solutions. And through discussion a shared understanding becomes the foundation on which to build.