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In this Corner: the Planning Commission
In that Corner: the Governing Body
PCJ Editor Wayne Senville:
There’s occasionally – some would say often a tension between planning commissions and local governing bodies.
This can come up in the context of development review decisions (in those states where the governing body has the final say); proposed zoning amendments; or recommended changes to the comprehensive plan. Sometimes planning commissioners feel their carefully considered recommendations are ignored or tossed out due to “political considerations.” Both bodies could be said to “represent” the public, but their roles and responsibilities are certainly different.
My question to you: Should the planning commission take its “marching orders” when it comes to land use policy from the governing body –- or should the governing body give deference to the commission as the community’s “expert” on land use planning and policy – or neither of the above?
The planning commission’s marching orders are to provide the best advice to the governing body as laid out in the comprehensive plan, mindful of the potentially evolving notion of the health, safety, and welfare of the whole community. If necessary, the commission should forward its advice / recommendation with appropriate references to the plan and ordinances adopted by the governing body on behalf of the community. The planning commissioners MUST remain above the politics.
When the planning commission submits its findings and recommendations to the elected officials, those recommendations are advisory. This does not mean they are not well thought out and well-reasoned.
It does mean that the elected officials have the final say. They are ultimately responsible to the public for those decisions. Just as the planning commission’s recommendations may sometime differ from staff’s, so the elected officials may differ with the planning commission.
That said, there is clearly a problem if the planning commission and the elected officials are frequently at odds.
Communication is always key, but does not by itself solve this potential problem. Here, the selectboard (i.e., local governing body) generally gives deference to the planning commission’s recommendations, but these must still be defended and supported (it’s not simply a rubber stamp process).
Ideally, a legislative body does its best to choose good commissioners, and then lets them do their job; this also requires the planning commission to respect and understand its role in the overall process.
Over time, the planning commission is trained to become the citizen “experts” for land use requests. The elected body can take advantage of this training by carefully weighing the planning commission recommendation, especially for applications that require interpretation and application of specific provisions of the zoning code, i.e. conditional and special use permits. The planning commission’s expert opinion provides a way for elected officials to make a well-reasoned, defendable decision without political influence.
However, on matters of land use policy, it is important for the planning commission to work jointly with the elected body to make the most efficient use of resources, including the time and effort it takes to make major changes. Heading off in the opposite direction from the elected body most often ends with a failed effort. Instead, the commission should meet with the elected body and provide information that supports their proposed policy or plan.
Carolyn makes an important distinction between the planning commission’s responsibility for implementation of the comprehensive plan and the codes (e.g., through site plan and subdivision review) and the commission’s responsibility to provide recommendations on policy matters (e.g., through the plan update process).
Planning commissioners can use the expertise gained from their implementation responsibilities to help resolve potential conflicts with elected officials on the policy side.
I think the planning commission and elected body should be trained on plan development and land use decisions together so each has the same basis of understanding even though their roles are different. This would avoid the “us vs. them” standoff that frequently happens.
My personal observation is that the governing body frequently sets aside the planning commissioners’ plan-based recommendation and (inappropriately) makes political decisions that violate the stated purpose and/or goals of the plan
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