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Town Councils and Planning Boards: A Challenging Relationship

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There has always been a delicate dance in the relationship between Town Councils and their appointed Planning Boards. Perhaps it comes from the community emotion that inevitably surrounds local land use issues. Perhaps it is rooted in a lack of clarity about their different roles. Whatever the origins of this tension, the relationship is frequently a source of debate and occasionally a source of friction. I would like to offer a few thoughts on what that relationship might ideally look like and make some suggestions on how to encourage that  positive result.

A misunderstanding of roles is the most frequent barrier to a positive relationship between councils and planning boards. What are the roles? The Council begins with the responsibility of appointing the members of the Board. It is the Council’s job to create a capable Board with a balance of experience and expertise. However, the Council then needs to leave the Board to do its job.

The two groups have distinctly different jobs. Councilors are policy makers. They are elected by and are responsive to the public whom they represent in all its various constituencies.

The Board members, on the other hand, are not policy makers. They are appointed to work within the ordinances adopted by the Council. They work within already established policy and do not change policy based on public comment. Even if the room is packed with citizens arguing that a permitted use be denied in a site plan hearing, it is not the Planning Board’s role to change what is or is not permitted. It is their role to apply the given ordinance. If the public does not like what the ordinance permits, then the Council is the place to get it changed. Similarly, if the Board is concerned about the impacts of applying a given ordinance, their option is to recommend changes to the Council.

Even if the room is packed with citizens arguing that a permitted use be denied in a site plan hearing, it is not the Planning Board’s role to change what is or is not permitted. It is their role to apply the given ordinance.

Even in the process of rewriting or developing new ordinances, the Council is still the policy maker. The Board functions like a technical consultant to the Council recommending effective ways to accomplish the general community goals requested by the Council.

The Council gives a sense of direction to the Board. The Board then uses its specialized background and expertise to make recommendations back to the Council. The recommendations may be creative and far reaching. They may be more complex or technically innovative than the Council ever imagined. But, it is the Council that makes the final decision with whatever political considerations it deems appropriate.

Each role is vital to a smoothly functioning community. But they are separate. If the Board tries to set policy or the Council tries to interfere with the application of the ordinance or fails to value the technical advice of the Board, confusion and trouble will follow.

End of excerpt

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