Citizen Planning in Unincorporated Communities

An unincorporated community may have a lower cost of living and less regulatory burden than an incorporated city. For some people, this can be the ideal setting for starting something they couldn't start elsewhere and turning it into a viable business or otherwise creating a lifestyle for themselves they couldn't have elsewhere.

If you are doing community development work in an unincorporated community, it may be helpful to put together some basic, useful information about living there. One way to do this would be to put together a small website talking about things like:
  • How utilities are accessed by locals -- wells? septic tanks? solar power? is it entirely off-grid or only partially?
  • Unusual structures that exist due to a lack of zoning that you couldn't build in an incorporated city with zoning and other restrictions.
  • Profiling local artists, entrepreneurs and other creatives either with their permission or from publicly available sources of information.
For example, Silverdale, Washington is a Census-Designated Place in Kitsap County. It is the birthplace of Tarn Adams, creator of Dwarf Fortress and he was still living there when he and his brother created Dwarf Fortress and turned it into a means to support themselves.

Silverdale had about 19,000 residents in 2010 and has made several attempts to incorporate but never succeeded. It's got a larger population than some incorporated communities in western Washington state and if Tarn Adams still lives there, it has a notable resident running an unusual business who is somewhat internet famous.

It's in Kitsap County, which is not far from Seattle via ferry. Kitsap has a fairly large population yet is relatively low cost and rural for the greater Seattle area.

Here's a video about an unusual space in San Francisco that exists in part because the physical structures were built before zoning was a factor:

San Francisco brick boiler room turned industrial tiny house

If you are in an unincorporated community, you have a bit of latitude to build physical spaces for people that couldn't be built in a more regulated environment and you have more of an opportunity to build social elements, like local businesses, that also wouldn't work or would have poorer odds of success in a more regulated environment.

If you position it right, there is the opportunity to attract creative people -- artists, entrepreneurs, retirees who have a few bucks and some time on their hands and independence -- and do something cool.

There will be challenges in trying to do development work in an unincorporated community. You may not qualify for certain kinds of federal or state programs and this can be a barrier to getting financial and technical resources needed to develop local infrastructure.

But even without a city government, you will likely have some structure from county, state and federal governments and you can still do development work via local non-profits, co-ops, businesses and volunteer work. Rather than focus overly much on the things you can't do, just focus as much as you can on the things you still can do.

Make sure to genuinely count the things going well in the community explicitly due to the lack of incorporation. Make an effort to quantify unusual business activities and community events that you likely wouldn't see in an incorporated community.

Sometimes trying too hard to fit a particular mold, such as incorporation for the community, can be the thing that kills the goose that's laying the golden eggs. Other times, people overlook tremendous opportunity because they are too focused on the thing they lack rather than focusing on the things they actually have.

Privately profile your community and try to make some kind of reasonable assessment about the pros and cons as they exist currently. Some of the pros will exist because it is unincorporated, not in spite of the lack of incorporation.

Start where you are and work with what you've got. Don't waste a lot of time on "if only-ing" about the lack of incorporation.

If you are really hung up about the lack of incorporation, consider playing devil's advocate and arguing against your ideas about why that is bad. Read up on the phenomonon of emergence and try to understand the factors that are actually essential to good economic development.

For many things, incorporated status for the community isn't essential. It may not even be pertinent at all in some cases.

If you do a bunch of analysis and conclude that, no, really, we should incorporate as the solution to our local problems, welp, now you have a potential new project to take on and it's a doozy. You can either decide to take it on or double down on focusing on lower hanging fruit.

Either way, try to avoid just whining about "If only we were incorporated..." That's generally not going to be a good use of your time and emotional energy.

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