The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “relevant” as having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand. As a member of the planning commission, you bring knowledge and passion about your community, and a willingness to invest yourself in its future. But that may not be enough. To avoid being seen as “just part of the system,” or even worse, as a group that simply interferes with progress, we recommend these Top Ten ways to solidify your planning commission’s significant and demonstrable bearing on your community. Again, as with David Letterman, we’ll present them in reverse order!
The planning commission should actively …
10. Help write the plan and keep it current. This task often falls to staff or consultants. Don’t wait till your community’s comprehensive or master plan is in final draft to review it. Be a part of its development (see #9 below). If the plan is over a year old, determine a process for reviewing and updating it. A relevant planning commission is equipped with a plan that is relevant to the community.
9. Attend, lead and/or participate in public meetings. Here we are talking about the public involvement portion of new plans or plan updates. We have both been involved in too many community planning meetings in which members of the planning commission were conspicuously absent. Don’t assume you need to stay away to remain unbiased; planning commissioners need to be a part of the plan development process.
If you, the planning commissioner, aren’t seen in the process, how likely is it that the public will perceive the importance of their involvement and their support of the plan? Moreover, by leading by example and providing input, you will help to craft the plan by which you will measure development proposals for your community.
8. Support the plan in official recommendations. Your community’s plan provides a guide for rational decision-making with respect to how the community changes over time. Your recommendations on development permits, rezoning applications, and other matters should reflect the goals, objectives, and policies established in the plan. If your planning commission recommendations are, over time, becoming less consistent with the plan, then it is time to start preparing plan updates.
7. Submit a written rationale for planning commission recommendations. The work of the planning commission is to provide rational and informed recommendations for changes in your community. A written report of findings on each case should be part of the official record. This provides accountability, which in turn adds to the commission’s credibility and relevance.
6. Be familiar with the long range plans of other entities. The school board, the water authority, the industrial development authority, the DOT, as well as other entities outside of your local government all make their own plans -- and there’s a great likelihood that those plans may pose a significant impact on the community. For example, the school board may be planning for new facilities (or abandoning facilities). The industrial development authority may be courting a major new employer. The Department of Transportation may be planning a new road that will significantly affect a neighborhood.
The planning commission can show its relevance to the community by acting as the clearinghouse for all these individual plans that have potentially large local impacts. By cross-organizational coordination, the planning commission can foresee and help avoid conflicting objectives and policies.
5. Stay in touch. It is important for planning commissioners to be visible in the community. Organizations such as neighborhood associations, merchants associations, civic groups, social groups, and professional or trade groups have a strong interest in the work of the planning commission, but they may not know that yet. Engage them through presentations at their meetings, or by holding listening sessions on overall goals or trends in the community. Invite people to share their general concerns. Answer their questions regarding what the plan says about particular issues. Share with them your hopes for your city or town’s future. Explain how the planning commission works.
Don’t overlook the power of print, broadcast, and social media to keep in touch. Consider writing a few articles a year for the local paper, or blogging about how street trees increase property values, or why setbacks vary in different zoning districts. You’ll provide a greater understanding (and likely greater public support) for the work you do, and demonstrate the commission’s relevance to the community.
One word of caution, however. Avoid ex parte communication by sticking to general issues and not discussing particular development permits that you’re scheduled to hear.
4. Dance naked. Remember the suggestion we just made to be visible in the community? Yes, be visible, but not too visible. If you plan to dance naked, we suggest that you wait until after the planning commission meeting is over! And be mindful of open container laws.
3. Stay current. Being relevant involves your own understanding of what planning commissioners can and should be doing, as well as what the limitations are-- and acting appropriately on both.
- Educate yourself about your role as a planning commissioners.
- Attend a planning commissioner training course.
- Subscribe to PlannersWeb for access to practical advice and emerging trends.
- Attend conferences and webinars to broaden your knowledge.
Most state chapters of the American Planning Association provide education for and assistance to planning commissions. Some states offer planning commissioner certification programs. In addition, be knowledgeable about your community’s plan, the ordinances, your bylaws and procedures, and the cases you are about to hear.
2. Conduct yourself ethically and professionally. Be pleasant and courteous, even if (and especially when) meetings become contentious. Conduct all proceedings in accordance with the standards contained in your bylaws. Make decisions on the basis of your community plans, your ordinances, and your state’s legal framework governing planning and zoning. Do not participate in ex parte communications. Avoid real or apparent conflicts of interest by disclosing those conflicts in accordance with your by-laws.
1. Work the plan. Most importantly, remember that “Plan” is not just a noun, but a VERB. The completion of your plan document is not the end, it’s the beginning. Development regulations and the zoning ordinance are two primary tools for making your community’s plan happen. As a planning commissioner, you are a key player in implementing the plan. The planning commission stays relevant to the community not just through completing a plan, but by engaging in a continuous planning process.
Jim Segedy, FAICP, worked for many years in Ball State University’s Community Based Planning program, providing assistance to more than one hundred communities and many plan commissions (as planning commissions are called in Indiana). He is currently a member of the Edgewood (Pennsylvania) Planning Commission and previously served on the Delaware County (Indiana) Plan Commission.
Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy, AICP, is the Associate Director for River Restoration for American Rivers’ Pittsburgh field office. Before moving to Pennsylvania, she spent over a decade as a circuit-riding planner for a regional planning organization serving the western fringe of Metropolitan Atlanta.