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The Planning Commission at Work

Avoiding the Unadoptable Plan or Ordinance

Yesterday, we examined a few unfortunate situations where community plans or the ordinances that implement them were fully completed and then were voted down for adoption by the elected body or by the voters.

After months, and sometimes years, of steering committee meetings, focus group meetings, neighborhood meetings, meetings with the staff, meetings with the consultants, data compilation, writing, editing, and rewriting … an unadoptable plan, ordinance, or code is a lot of sunk time and cost. To the public, it can appear that the planning commission failed in its duties. To the elected body, it can also appear that the planning commission has not done its job. Neither of those scenarios is encouraging to you, the planning commissioner.

There are some simple things you can do to help keep your plan or ordinance from hitting a brick wall at the end of the line. Here’s our Top Ten List (in reverse order, David Letterman style) of Strategies That Planning Commissioners Can Use to Build Momentum for Plan/Ordinance Adoption:

Top 10 cartoon10. Begin with the end in mind. The end is not a process or a document, but rather a tool that will help your community achieve its vision. Establishing and clearly articulating that vision is critical to a successful planning process. Without it, your plan will be baseless, and you will lack that rallying point around which everyone can agree — even as they hash out the details of what it will take to achieve the vision.

9. Strike the right balance with meetings. Too many meetings wears out the public. They lose interest and simply quit participating. Too few meetings doesn’t provide adequate opportunity for interaction and input. Use a wide range of techniques to gather input and save meetings for when the business of plan or ordinance development is best conducted in a face-to-face setting.

8. Use public engagement tools that match your demographic. A little research into your community’s demographic can help you determine the best ways to reach residents of your community. Rather than relying on the linear application of a single technique, use multiple tools that will appeal to your community’s different demographic groups.

7. Focus your focus groups.  Avoid the practice of creating one big committee that is charged with developing the plan or the ordinance. Most people are interested in one or two specific issues. What we’ve often found more useful is the creation of a focus group process that engages people in what interests them most.

6. Engage your elected officials.  Many governing bodies resist being involved in plan or ordinance development on the principle that they will have to vote on it at the end of the process. This logic is counterintuitive, in our opinion and experience. How can elected officials defend the plan or ordinance in the face of public opposition unless they’ve been a part of its evolution? How can they be prepared to implement the plan or ordinance if their first involvement with it is at the very end of its development?

5. Build bridges.  We all know the old saying, “You can please some of the people some of the time …” graphic of a bridge made of puzzle piecesThe fine art of compromise is critical in developing a plan or ordinance for your community. The first step of compromise is identifying the common ground on which everyone can agree. Next, listen closely so you can understand WHY someone has objected. Look for ways to build bridges across disagreements to mutually agreeable (or, at least, mutually tolerable) solutions that address the community’s vision.

graphic of Keep It Simple, Stupid4. KISS.  This was a popular public speaking acronym when we were beginning our careers. “Keep It Simple, Stupid” was a reminder to communicate your ideas simply and clearly. Simple, straightforward plans and ordinances have a much better chance of being understood and accepted by the public.

3. Provide flexibility in the process, in the plan, and in the ordinances. Allow for different kinds of input — crowd-sourcing, community walkabouts, image-based appearance surveys — these are just a few examples of flexible processes. Benefit-cost analyses and scenarios are flexible planning  techniques. Performance standards, design guidelines, and pattern books are other good ways of allowing planners and developers to meet the community’s needs.

2. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Adoption of prioritized portions of your plan and ordinance may be better than simply voting down the entire thing.  Another alternative is to table the matter rather than voting down adoption, with a timetable for returning with compromises on the plan/ordinance sections that are not understood or supported by the public. As we mentioned in Part 1, having a plan or key implementing ordinance voted down sends a negative message to the public, which can severely hamper future public support of the next plan or major ordinance.

1. The plan or ordinance is NOT the final product — it is not a document that should sit on the shelf. As Jim says, “Don’t think of ‘plan’ as a noun. Treat it as a VERB.” Use your plans and ordinances as tools to help the community to achieve its collective vision.

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.

photo of the SegedysJim 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.