Sustainable Thurston’s format gives everyone a voice

When community planners, land-use experts and elected officials begin talking about regional plans, one of two things usually occur: either the public’s collective eyeballs start rolling, or the long knives come out.

The Sustainable Thurston project, under the leadership of the Thurston Regional Planning Council (TRPC), has successfully skirted both of these extreme responses. How? Because it’s not a plan.

TRPC designed the Sustainable Thurston project as an ongoing community conversation about how to shape the future of the South Sound. It is giving a voice and creative opportunity for residents to imagine Thurston County as a vibrant place to live and what we need to do to get there.

It has kept eyeballs from rolling because it is not a pronouncement from elected officials to be force-fed to the masses. It imposes no regulations, only elucidates desired outcomes. It has no enforcement powers, only measurable indicators of progress toward sustainability.

Although Sustainable Thurston will result in several final documents – such as a regional housing plan and a sustainable economic strategy – they are not meant as finished products destined for dormancy on someone’s bookshelf. The TRPC and other jurisdictions will continuously review and monitor them, and future public discussions will produce course corrections.

The TRPC has avoided the long knives by engaging most of the South Sound’s competing interests and varied perspectives about the ongoing struggle over land use.

For example, the project has connected the interests of urban populations in the north county to those of rural residents in the south county in both food production and transportation.

It is weighing how to leverage the purchasing power of urban areas to foster economic growth in the rural southern regions through simple buy-local campaigns – for produce, beef and even Christmas trees – as well as tackling the more complex issue of how to mitigate the loss of prime agricultural soils.

Competing transportation issues are on the table, too. In the South County, state Route 507 forms the de facto Main Street for most rural communities. But while each town’s small businesses want to slow down traffic, the state Department of Transportation wants to move it faster.

Those are the kinds of issues that have engaged more than 1,500 citizens over seven community workshops. There are two workshops remaining, in Olympia on March 27 and in Rainier on March 28.

A strong sense of hopefulness emerged from an online survey of 1,200 residents. It indicated people love where they live and don’t want to spoil it. We don’t want Thurston County to turn into some version of Southern California.

Beyond the formation of an evolving long-term vision, the Sustainable Thurston project has created something much more valuable and enduring. It has created a process for people of myriad interests to understand each other, and open their eyes to the bigger picture of how individual actions affect everyone else.

Sustainable Thurston has formed a useful format of learning community for resolving conflicts as Thurston County develops, rather than falling back on the adversarial model all too prevalent today.