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The Planning Commission at Work

Smoothing the Rocky Road

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In the mid-1990s, Jim served a term on the Delaware/Muncie Metropolitan Plan Commission in Indiana. Other voting members of the commission included a landscape architect, a farmer, a realtor, a local business owner, a mail carrier, and a retired teacher. This collection of citizens brought diverse backgrounds and varied professional and personal interests to their appointment, but most importantly, they all had a shared concern for their community.

Jim recalls that most of the cases they considered were rather straightforward and the group had little trouble reaching agreement on the content of their recommendations. However, there were several controversial development proposals that were presented during Jim's term and almost every one of these resulted in a split vote.

No doubt your planning commission is similar to the one on which Jim served, with the membership representing a wide diversity of interests, but all having the good of the community at heart. Planning commissions often struggle with group dynamics in the process of making decisions on difficult issues, such as:

-- How do you, as a group, plan for what types of development would be in your hometown's best interest, and where they might most appropriately be located?
-- How do you balance the rights of the individual and the common good?
-- What's the best answer when proposals you're considering affect the local economy, traffic, natural and historic resources, and quality of life?
-- Will you be able to find common ground in the process of weighing the relative merits of a permit request against the goals in your comprehensive plan and the standards in your zoning ordinance?

In this column, we'll take a look at three ways by which you, as a planning commissioner, can smooth the rocky road before you.

1. Know the Story

Your community's comprehensive plan is its story, from the beginning until 20 years into the future. It contains your community's history, current situation, and anticipated future changes. It tells the story of your community's vision. It lays out the path you must follow to meet needs and make improvements. When every member of the planning commission knows the story, it flows smoothly and the path is clear.

Your ordinances and maps add details to the story: the what, where, and how of your hometown. What you as a planning commissioner need to know is: why? and what? Why were the plan, ordinances, and map drawn as they were? What was the intent of various district standards and their placement on the map?

In each of the zoning ordinances that Jim has ever been involved with developing, the district standards contain a narrative description of the intent -- details about what the district is designed to achieve. There's little doubt among planning commission members, staff, elected officials, and the public regarding the part each district plays in the community's story and whether or not proposed development or redevelopment is a part of the tale. If your ordinances don't clearly describe their intent and purpose, or don't mesh with your comprehensive plan, then it is time to rewrite them.

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2. Know the Boundaries
3. Know Your Teammates

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