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Conflicts of interest, and particularly the more common issue of perceived conflicts of interest, continue to be one of the thorniest problems facing local planning commissions.
Imagine the lead story in your local newspaper reading "the recent upheaval in the town planning department can be linked to one former planning commissioner whom critics say guided town zoning laws in a way that benefited at least one of his development proposals."
Just such an article appeared recently in a New England newspaper. In spite of repeated denials by the commissioner in question, the issue set off a chain reaction that involved the resignation of the planning director, the "firing" of the entire planning commission, and an editorial criticizing the performance of the planning commission. The incident had to do with a commissioner participating in discussions over zoning text amendments that would have removed a setback requirement. This was perceived as clearing the way for him to develop his property with a hotel.
Interestingly, all involved agreed that the planning commissioner did not act illegally.
Conflicts of interest, and particularly the more common issue of perceived conflicts of interest, continue to be one of the thorniest problems facing local planning commissions. Unlike jurors who are selected on the basis of lack of knowledge about the subject, planning commission members are often selected based upon having knowledge of the community. This often means that commissioners are involved in local planning and development issues in one form or another.
This issue is particularly acute when a planning board member has an interest in developable real estate. While none of us like to think that we have given up some right by agreeing to serve on the planning board, the most sensitive ethical area involves a perception that a planning board member is acting in a way to advance his own interests in private property development.
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C. Gregory Dale, FAICP, is a founding Principal with McBride Dale Clarion, the Cincinnati affiliate office of Clarion Associates. He has managed planning projects throughout the country, and is also a frequent speaker at planning and zoning workshops and conferences.
Between 1991 and 2009, Dale authored 31 articles for the Planning Commissioners Journal, including 21 for our Ethics & the Planning Commission series, and others on a variety of transportation and zoning topics. Dale is also a co-author of The Planning Commissioners Guide (American Planning Association, 2013).