If Chester County's 474,000 residents have any thoughts about the direction their fast-growing county is moving toward, now is the time to weigh in.
Starting today, residents will be asked to spend a few minutes answering seven questions that county planners say will help them balance growth and preservation over the next decade.
"If we see a sea change, that will cause us to take a hard look at what is going on," said Ronald T. Bailey, executive director of the county Planning Commission. "If we see a reaffirmation, we will look at moving forward and how to implement."
The survey is part of Landscapes2, an update of the award-winning comprehensive plan that has become one of the most popular initiatives ever undertaken by the county.
"I quote it all the time in my grant applications," said Pam Brown, land preservation associate for the French and Pickering Creeks Conservation Trust. "It really is the bible."
The original Landscapes, now more than 10 years old, launched a frenzy of land-use planning in Chester County. Through a number of programs, it encouraged municipalities to buy into the vision by offering them grants to update their plans and ordinances.
"Landscapes has been a great guide for the municipal officials," said West Bradford Township Supervisor Mark Blair. The support from the county encouraged the township to adopt plans and development techniques that it might not have tried otherwise, he said. One example: A recent proposal that calls for preserving one farm and part of another while putting houses on a third farm, instead of spreading them across all three properties.
Spinoffs from Landscapes include Watersheds, an integrated water resources plan; Linking Landscapes, the open-space plan; and the two-volume Community Handbook, often referred to as the "Toolbox" because it offers ways to implement the goals of Landscapes.
In addition to the survey, county planners will hold a number of focus groups with special interests such as environmentalists, farmers, and those involved in development.
They are also meeting with local officials at a series of breakfasts, all with the goal of casting as wide a net for gathering opinions, Bailey said.
"We're just trying to get people involved and make sure we are tracking the critical issues," Bailey said of the yearlong effort.
He said in 1995, when Landscapes was developed, concerns about sprawl helped frame a plan that has been widely imitated around the state. Some of those concerns remain critical and others warrant a fresh look, Bailey said.
Since 1995, other issues have arisen, such as the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and their effect on climate change. Capturing, or sequestering, carbon dioxide will be an element of Landscapes2.
The plan will also address housing diversity and the lack of choices for households with incomes from $50,000 to $100,000 a year, he said.
In the 10 years since Landscapes was adopted, the county has added 70,000 residents, 48,000 new housing units have been proposed, and the median house price has jumped from $155,000 to $295,000.
Bailey said he was shocked to learn that 40 percent of the employees in the Great Valley office parks commute from Berks County because they cannot afford a house in Chester County.
"We need to look at our systems and look at our structures, and figure out a way to provide a greater variety of housing choice," he said.
Another issue is transportation - moving people and goods into, out of, and around Chester County, Bailey said. That, too, has to be approached from a systems-wide perspective, he said.
Senya Isayeff, owner of Alliance Environmental Systems in West Chester and a supporter of Landscapes, said he thinks everyone in the county should participate in the survey.
"It is good for all of us to have a document that is so well thought-out to go to for some good ideas," he said. "The update can only be an improvement."
The survey can be taken online at www.Landscapes2.org. Paper copies will also be available at libraries and municipal offices around the county.