The problem, Guffey said, is that he routinely hears only the opinions of certain residents — those willing to attend public hearings and who don’t shy from speaking out. While that’s helpful and important to the process, the county planner said he worries that he’s not getting the complete picture.
“Certain people tend to dominate public hearings, and it’s generally the same people each time,” Guffey said, adding that he believes it is vital to find ways to include people who might be uncomfortable speaking publicly on potentially divisive subjects.
That’s exactly what Carla Norwood, former director of the Franklin-based Little Tennessee Watershed Association, and husband Gabriel Cumming have been trying to discover how to do. Norwood and Cumming are graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Guffey’s desire to include more Macon County residents in decisions about land planning helped shape Norwood’s doctoral research, which has focused on understanding how Macon County’s permanent residents view the changes that population growth and increased development are bringing to their community.
Macon County has experienced an approximately 7 percent increase in growth each year for the past decade, Guffey said.
“We had had many conversations about how to get more people involved in meaningful discussions about how the community was changing, which helped to inform the research we’ve been doing,” Norwood said. “And the core of the issues in Macon County — how to encourage conversations about and protection of shared resources such as water quality, the beauty of the landscape, that just about everyone values, but that are being degraded by the cumulative impact of uncoordinated actions — is something that many, many communities are thinking about.”
Norwood and her husband wanted to reach those people not likely to participate in public hearings. In January, they started sending the first of 1,800 surveys to a random sample of permanent Macon County residences. They included $1 to help with postage, and also followed up with reminders.
Surveys are being accepted through this week. So far, the couple has received about 50 percent. The questions include the following:
• Do you think county leaders pay enough attention to citizens’ opinion on land use issues?
• Should Macon County’s leadership do more or less to address growth?
• How would you feel most comfortable sharing your opinions about growth with county leaders?
Norwood said that the final question yielded the following results (other questions in the survey are still being tabulated):
• Twelve percent said they’d like to send in photographs that show types of development they think are desirable or undesirable.
• Sixteen percent they’d prefer small group discussions at a meeting where comments are recorded.
• Ten percent would like to make written comments at a meeting.
• Eleven percent preferred speaking at public meetings in town.
• Eleven percent would speak at meetings in fire departments or community clubs.
• Thirty-six percent wanted to fill out written surveys.
• Four percent said “other.”
Norwood said the survey follows up on an intensive public engagement process undertaken in 2004-2006, the Little Tennessee Perspectives. In addition to researching perspectives on growth and other issues, Norwood said the couple wanted to explore how similar (on growth and development issues) residents who participated in the Little Tennessee Perspectives project are to those who didn’t participate.
A chunk of the survey analysis will be completed within the next month, Norwood said, with the remainder done by next fall.
The graduate student said she and her husband are trying to determine the best ways to make the information available to the community and interested elected officials and community organizations.