- In one Idaho community, the outspoken and angry public protest of several provisions of a new zoning ordinance resulted in the council voting down the entire zoning ordinance. 1
- After a two-year facilitated process, voters of a small town in Maine rejected a proposed “SmartCode,” in part because a number of residents didn’t understand it. 2
- A county in Indiana had a change of leadership. The entire platform of the new county commissioners was to get rid of the comprehensive plan (their county’s first). To quote the new president of the county commissioners: “We had to do something. It was so bad they wouldn’t even let us have appliances on our front porch.” They “unadopted” their two year old plan and let the entire planning staff of five go. The president wrote his own plan to “comply” with state enabling legislation (in his mind) -- three paragraphs, to be implemented solely by the county commissioners. 3
These are just a few examples of the worst kind of outcome for a new plan or ordinance, and it is the stuff of nightmares for planning commissioners. In this column, we will explore potential pathways available to planning commissioners when faced with an “unadoptable” plan or ordinance.
But First, Act to Avoid Problems
Whether the opposition to the plan or ordinance under consideration comes from the public, elected officials, or both, the end result can be a lot of effort, time, and money down the drain. The best way to avoid this outcome is by NEVER letting it get to that point!
The community -- and especially the legislative body -- MUST be involved in the process of developing a new plan or ordinance from the very beginning. [We’ll talk more about how to best involve the governing body in the second part of this article]. All the “wrangling” should happen at the public meetings, even to the point of actively recruiting people and groups that might have concerns (real and perceived). Use the public meetings as an opportunity to work towards solutions and strategies, not just as a “bitch fest.” All input is important, but letting concerns go unaddressed will only make things worse and WILL come back to haunt you later -- guaranteed.
Something we have found to be helpful is to spend an entire meeting on one issue until resolution is achieved. This takes facilitation and meeting management. Ground rules are clear at the beginning and will be the foundation of civil and civic discourse.
As a planning commissioner, you represent the people -- not just yourself. That means you have to do your homework and keep your finger on the pulse of the community.
Another critical point to remember is that often the development and review of plans or ordinances will take some time, and you’ll have new members joining the commission who weren’t involved at the start of the process.
BE PROACTIVE. Bring ALL commissioners up to speed on the status of the plan and remind them of the key points. Keep them engaged in the process from beginning to end. We have found that a “summary checklist” of the key points of the draft plan is a great way to keep the planning process moving forward -- and also keep governing body members apprised of what’s going on. Nothing makes a councilperson happier than to check things off on “their” list. Press releases sharing successes and challenges yet remaining can also be very helpful.
When You Need a “Plan B”
Yes, sometimes -- despite our best efforts -- a draft plan can run into major problems, especially when it reaches the governing body. How do you salvage the investment? Or do you simply start over?
Completely discarding the plan could send the message that there is nothing worthwhile in the plan, or that the hard work that went into its development was wasted. For this reason, we suggest that the planning board conduct a careful post-mortem of the plan to help determine the plan elements that can be salvaged. But keep your review in the open -- and do NOT sweep issues under the rug. That’s fuel for the flames.
First, place no blame. Accusations do not build the trust needed to overcome disagreements. If the goal is a plan or ordinance that can be adopted, then everyone needs to find sufficient trust and respect for each other to be able to work together. Focus on the document itself and not on personalities.
Second, identify the parts of the plan or ordinance that everyone can agree on. It is easier to begin from a position of agreement. It may be as basic and general as, “we want our community to be a pleasant place to live.” Once everyone agrees on that broad statement, you can measure all the disagreements against that statement as a means of forward progress.
Next, find out which portions of the plan or ordinance are objectionable. This could be done via a survey to avoid placing people on the defensive. It is equally important to find out why these plan sections are not supported. As Steven Covey advises in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “First seek to understand, then to be understood.” You may have to talk to detractors one-on-one and really listen to their story. The feedback you receive will clarify the opposition that the plan or ordinance is receiving, and it will also help diffuse the adversarial situation. The information you gather from this step will give you a “punch list” of items to refine, clarify, or replace in the document.
And now for the tricky part … finding consensus on the plan or ordinance sections that are in dispute. In our experience, a third party acting as a facilitator is often an effective approach. This could be a professional planner from a regional planning commission or a nearby community, or it could be a consultant. Ideally, your facilitator would have some mediation training and experience and would be acceptable to all as a “disinterested third party” who could keep the consensus-building process on task and move the plan or ordinance from stalemate to solution.
In Part 2 tomorrow, we’ll provide suggestions and techniques for how to avoid a planning process turning ugly. In the meantime, if you’ve dealt with strong opposition to a plan or ordinance, we’d welcome your sharing your experiences with us in the discussion on the PlannersWeb LinkedIn group page.
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.
- ”Angry crowd shuts down meeting” (Coeur d'Alene Press, June 18, 2013). ↩
- ”Damariscotta Voters Reject Proposed SmartCode” (The Lincoln County News, June 15, 2011). ↩
- A story Jim still recalls from his years in Indiana. “[Morgan County] Commissioners replace planning, zoning rules” (Indianapolis Star, Jan 28, 1997). ↩