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Diagnosing Your Community Before You Plan

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“Prepare a comprehensive plan” is often the prescription planners suggest to solve the difficult development, conservation, and related problems that confront their community. But does it always make sense to undertake an exhaustive multi-year planning process that can cost tens of thousands of dollars or more, and may not even resolve the critical issues currently facing the community?

A useful first step — before preparing a comprehensive plan — may be to conduct a community “diagnostic study.” It costs far less, can be completed in a fairly short time, and can help get a handle on the community’s “hot button” issues. In addition, the diagnostic study will focus your comprehensive plan work when and if it is necessary.

A Typical Scenario

The value of conducting an initial diagnostic study can be more easily understood by setting out the following scenario:

The Town of Exurbia, which has experienced only modest growth in the past thirty years, suddenly finds itself besieged with development applications. These projects, if built, will double the population in the next five or ten years and consume an area four times as large as the existing developed area of the town. The proposed development consists primarily of cul-de-sac subdivisions and strip commercial development.

The town is split politically between those who want to slow or stop growth and those who want to cash in on it. Since the current zoning allows most of this development (although it is inconsistent with the town’s current master plan), there appears to be very little that the planning commission can do about these proposals, other than to approve them.

What should the planning commission do?

The Typical Response:

The all-too-common response is to begin preparing a comprehensive plan. Yet by the time the comprehensive planning process is finished and it is time to write ordinances, many of the development projects (which triggered the call for better planning in the first place) will have already been approved, and the planning process will seem irrelevant. And by the time the municipality has paid for the comprehensive plan, it may have little or no funding left over to write new ordinances.

Some municipalities deal with this problem with a stop-gap development moratorium, which is at best only a partial solution and often exacerbates the polarization that already exists in the community.

Comprehensive plans also typically leave municipal officials with a laundry list of actions to perform and little sense of priority about what to do next. In addition, comprehensive plans, in an effort to achieve a fragile consensus, often avoid dealing directly with the most critical issues and public concerns.

Moreover, if the state calls for municipalities to redo their plans every five years (as a growing number of states require), many communities end up having to revise their plan before they have implemented it. And guess what? The plans never get implemented and planning looks to the ordinary citizen like an exercise in futility.

Because “the devil is in the details,” drafting ordinances is almost always much more complicated and time-consuming than writing and adopting a plan. I am continually amazed at how many municipalities have done elaborate comprehensive plans and how few have effectively implemented them through zoning and public investments. The reason, I believe, is failure to diagnose the social and human issues that underlie the community’s planning problems.

The bottom line for a town like Exurbia is that its considerable investment in time and money in preparing a comprehensive plan may well have a very limited payoff in resolving its pressing problem of how to deal with a rapid increase in development.

End of excerpt

… article then focuses on the function of a “diagnostic study” and how it can be prepared.

Joel S. Russell, Esq., is Executive Director of the Form-Based Codes Institute (FBCI), a national think tank and training organization devoted to advancing the practice of form-based coding.

For 25 years before his appointment to FBCI he served as a self-employed planning consultant and attorney based in Northampton, Massachusetts working with municipalities, landowners, land trusts, and developers on zoning reform, form-based codes, comprehensive planning, and land conservation. He was founding Executive Director of the Dutchess Land Conservancy in New York State.

— bio note updated 03.27.14

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