How Dialogue Can Help Small Rural Towns Navigate Planning Challenges

May 09, 2016 | EDR Blog

By Bob Ford, Pam Leach, and Tracy Dutson for

Rockville is a small town located at the edge of Zion National Park that has a proud history of being a quiet, rural, agricultural community.  Like many other locations in the Intermountain West, Rockville is experiencing stresses on its infrastructure and way-of-life as tourism grows, specifically around Zion National Park. In part as a result of pressure from increased visitation, Rockville has faced a variety of challenges in recent years, such as issues associated with increased traffic, all-terrain vehicles (ATV) use on surrounding public lands, uncertain water supplies, and budgetary woes.

As with many small towns, Rockville community members want to have a say in how the town responds to these issues. Unfortunately, many residents had started to feel left out of town decision-making, unheard, and concerned about the transparency of their public officials’ actions. Perhaps as a result, people started to avoid town meetings, and those that did often left feeling frustrated.

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Every five years, the Rockville Planning Commission is required to conduct a public survey regarding its General Plan. This survey helps inform the town’s planning, land-use codes, and other ordinances. In an effort to address these emerging tensions and concerns, the town focused on conducting its 2015 survey in as credible and transparent a manner as possible, with the aim of engaging residents and town officials to identify priority issues and discuss potential solutions.

Recognizing the need for outside help, town officials reached out to the Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) Program at the University of Utah to assist with designing and implementing a transparent and collaborative approach for engaging the community to discuss the survey findings. To help the community process the survey results, EDR Program staff facilitated an open Town Forum in early 2015. The goal was to create an environment in which residents and town officials could openly discuss issues and identify planning priorities in a civil and constructive manner.

Prior to the Town Forum, EDR Program staff conducted informal, confidential interviews with Rockville community members to get a sense of the diversity of residents’ perspectives and concerns. These one-on-one conversations, we learned, allowed residents with strong sentiments about local planning concerns to truly feel “heard.” They also helped inform the design and structure of the Town Forum through illuminating areas of agreement, disagreement, and confusion among town residents and officials.

The Town Forum, held in the local community center, brought stakeholders together in productive dialogue. Unlike previous town meetings, which were often divisive, this respectful facilitated dialogue helped community members appreciate their shared values and develop a common understanding and acceptance of the key issues facing our small town. The following issues were identified as the highest priority– and as requiring collaborative action:

  1. Dealing with increased traffic along State Route 9 (SR-9) and town roads;
  2. Planning for the effects of climate and drought on water systems, increasing the need for better planning for future growth, protection of water rights, and improving fire hydrant and water/sewer utility systems; and
  3. Protecting the town’s unique cultural resources such as the historic Rockville Bridge, rock-lined pioneer irrigation ditches, and Grafton Ghost town.

The forum also helped community members appreciate the need to do long-term “visioning” about how to protect the core values of the town and to better negotiate with outside entities impacting Rockville.

Robert Ford
Bob Ford

Since the initial Town Forum, we have had similar facilitated collaborative learning forums on the issues of culinary water and the bridge. Both issues had proven to be controversial, with residents having strong feelings – often based on partial information – about what should and should not be done. Each of these forums was facilitated by the EDR Program, and was informed by confidential interviews (conducted by EDR Program staff) with community members beforehand. Like the initial Town Forum, the Forum on Culinary Water and the Forum on Rockville’s Historic Bridge helped community members share information, learn from one another, and clarify their understanding of key challenges and technical concerns surrounding these issues. During the facilitated forums, Rockville residents were able to ask questions, raise concerns, listen to one another, and participate in open discussions in a way that had previously not happened. As a result, the community has been able to build agreement around its priorities and strategies for addressing these challenges, rather than having meetings degrade into shouting matches or people leaving feeling frustrated and confused.

Pam Leach

The bridge forum, for example, assisted Rockville in clarifying issues surrounding the potential rehabilitation or replacement of our historic bridge – specifically, how Joint Highway Commission funding could be utilized, and how that use aligned with the desires of the majority of Rockville residents. The forum helped Rockville residents better understand the Town Council’s decision to request the Joint Highway Commission reallocate funding to rehabilitate rather than replace the Rockville Bridge. It also provided Rockville’s public officials the confidence that residents supported the town’s decision to pursue reallocation of available funds for bridge rehabilitation. Following the forum, Rockville made a successful presentation to the Joint Highway Commission showing widespread community support for bridge restoration. And, we’re pleased to say, the Commission unanimously decided to approve reallocating funding for the bridge’s rehabilitation – and the provision of an additional $400,000!

Tracy Duston

Rockville’s experience shows that, even when communities seem very divided about important issues, bringing people together to engage meaningfully in dialogue and to learn from one another can help residents reaffirm their shared values and work across differences. This is all the more important in small rural towns, where people want to have a direct say in their community’s planning and decision-making.

Robert (Bob) Ford is a semi-retired academic geographer, former USDA/USAID environmental policy analyst, land use planner, and conservation scientist. He has served on the Town’s Planning Commission for four years, including the last year as it’s Chair.

Pam Leach, Mayor, Town of Rockville was elected to the Town Council in 2005, and appointed Mayor on February 26, 2016. Her background is in Real Estate Investment and Escrow, as well as Equine Management.

Tracy Duston was the Mayor of Rockville from 2014 to February 2016.