Land Use Planning at Energy Sites Involves Communication, Coordination, and Commitment

By Lowrie, Karen | Public Management, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Land Use Planning at Energy Sites Involves Communication, Coordination, and Commitment


Lowrie, Karen, Public Management


The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) occupies a large amount of land, with vast sites located in a few states but smaller parcels found in more than 30 states. These are places where nuclear materials and weapons have been designed, manufactured, and assembled. At many of the larger sites, such as Hanford in southeastern Washington (560 square miles) and the Savannah River site (SRS) in South Carolina (310 square miles), production facilities are concentrated toward the center of the tract, leaving sizable buffer zones of uncontaminated and untouched land.

Challenges Are Ahead

Although DOE is the nation's fourth largest landlord, with more than 2.4 million acres under its management, it never has been a land management agency and therefore has no formal policy for managing and planning the use of its lands, other than for national security missions. In fact, it has traditionally operated in a manner antithetical to that of a land management agency. Site officials have not been trained in land use planning; no uniform land use planning documents have been required; and until recently, no open public involvement processes have been implemented.

In contrast, other large land-owning agencies, like the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the National Park Service (NPS), and the Department of Agriculture's U.S. Forest Service (USFS), all have statutory mandates to manage land either for multiple use (BLM and USFS) or for preservation and enjoyment (NPS). Likewise, these agencies have uniform policies that have been in place for decades to govern the development of management plans and procedures for updating them.

More Important Issues

As weapons are no longer being manufactured and as DOE moves from cleanup to reuse and eventual closure of some of its major nuclear weapons sites, the issue of future land use is becoming ever more important. Before environmental management activities have been completed and especially now, as cleanup and reuse decisions are being made, it is crucial to develop a process to coordinate on-site planning with off-site local and regional planning activities.

Establishing a lasting planning relationship with local officials will ensure that critical information is exchanged, that community land use concerns are addressed, and that sites are successfully coordinated with regional land use and development plans.

The goal of a recent study conducted at Rutgers University's Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy was to find out what is happening with planning for future land use at these sites and to what degree interaction goes on between on- and off-site planners. Interviewing these planners has allowed Rutgers to compare local views with those of the people responsible for planning at the sites.

At the community level, the university specifically targeted officials with land use planning positions because these officials are trained to analyze land use issues with a broad understanding of legal, environmental, economic, social, and public health aspects.

Plus, they are generally familiar with public opinion and experienced at forming a consensus among multiple interests in a community, including developers, community organizations, and environmental groups. They also usually retain a long-term perspective and enjoy a longer tenure in their jobs than do elected public officials.

Planner Interviews in the Rutgers Study

Rutgers selected 13 major DOE sites, including sites located at Los Alamos, New Mexico; Hanford, Washington; Savannah River Site, South Carolina, and Rocky Flats, Colorado, at each of which the official federal contact staff for planning was questioned. The university received responses to eight open-ended questions covering the state of future-use planning at the site, key land use issues, and interactions with planners from surrounding regions.

Research staff also contacted planning officials from counties that have land area occupied by part of a DOE site, and surveyed the major host or adjacent towns. …

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Land Use Planning at Energy Sites Involves Communication, Coordination, and Commitment
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