Larry French: You need to get involved early

SHOWING UP IS IMPORTANT — Citizens attend a meeting at Lake Helen City Hall about the proposed Automall development at Lake Helen’s western edge.

SHOWING UP IS IMPORTANT — Citizens attend a meeting at Lake Helen City Hall about the proposed Automall development at Lake Helen’s western edge.

BEACON FILE PHOTO

Have you ever felt strongly enough about an issue that you were compelled to speak out at a civic meeting?

Did you get the impression that the decision about your topic was already a done deal?

Welcome to the club. You’ve just realized the importance of timing when it comes to civic involvement.

When you become civically engaged in the decision-making process is key.

When it comes to growth and development projects, as with other topics, there is a process and a series of steps. If you become engaged in the early phases, you, as a citizen, have a greater potential to influence the outcomes.

Too often, concerned citizens will get involved at the end, after a topic has been through planning or zoning boards and is ready for a final vote by civic leaders.

I became aware of this when I got involved in a rezoning issue involving a park in my community. When I appeared at the public hearing to speak against the plan, it soon became apparent that I was at the wrong place in time.

Decisions had already been pretty much decided. I was ignorant of the process, and had tried to influence decisions too late.

By the time a topic comes up for the final vote, the matter may have been through many steps during which no objections were aired.

Waiting until the very end is like Don Quixote going against the windmill.

To be more effective, take time to attend public meetings in your community. Learn about the protocols, and how citizens can make statements.

Find out when your local planning and zoning boards meet to go over development projects.

Most all of these meetings are open to the public, so you can attend and have opportunities to question and comment. You can also find notices for various kinds of meetings related to growth-planning topics advertised, because governments are required to give public notice.

It takes time and effort to be civically aware, but it does have its rewards. If you are involved early, you have an even greater opportunity to become informed and mobilize either support or opposition.

In Deltona, a civic battle dragged on for nine years over plans to develop some lakefront property. In the process, citizens learned how to effectively influence their government. The plan was stopped, and the land became a public park.

One of the individuals involved wrote an account as a primer for others who might face similar situations. The Story of Thornby: How Ordinary People Took on Government, by Sandra Walters, is highly recommended for the tips and important suggestions it provides.

— Larry French, who lives in Deltona, was involved in growth-management issues and the Thornby struggle, and was a resource for author Sandra Walters in writing her book. He now writes and assists with Great Tasting Tours in historic Downtown DeLand, and recently authored a book, Grand Hotels of West Volusia County.

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