Ethics & the Planning Commission

“Ma’am, We’re Here for You.”

December 11th, 2013

We’re pleased to welcome Ben Frost to the PlannersWeb. In this column, he addresses a question every planning commissioner faces, but one that’s not often discussed: who does the planning commission serve?

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As I sat through a public hearing for another minor site plan revision, what I wanted to say was “Ma’am, we’re here for you.”

I serve on my town’s planning commission. We’re a group of volunteers appointed by our board of selectmen; our appointments are based partly on our qualifications, but mainly they’re based on the fact that we show an interest in our community and its future. I suspect that this is the primary factor that motivates the interest of most planning commissioners – wanting to give something back. But to give back to whom? Who do we serve as we fulfill this motivation?

This was the situation at that recent public hearing: the owner of a small light manufacturing plant wanted to modestly expand his building to accommodate new equipment, and this required a modification to the approved site plan. The facility is in a commercial zone, but surrounded by residential uses. Abutters were notified, the hearing was scheduled, and there we sat listening to the presentation by the applicant. The commissioners all seemed amenable to the proposal and asked few questions.

The public hearing was opened, and an elderly woman — the only person there other than us and the applicant — introduced herself as a direct abutter. She spoke glowingly of the applicant, saying that he was a good neighbor, and then she started to gently interrogate him — would the hours of operation change? would the traffic pattern change? would there be added noise from the new HVAC unit? and so on. All her questions were good and expressed the valid concerns of an abutter, but at one point she turned to the commissioners and said “I’m sorry, I don’t want to waste your time.”

It was then that I wanted to say “Ma’am, we’re here for you.” But I didn’t say it, because as the words sat inside my head I thought, I’m also here for the applicant. While I know that we commissioners sat there also to represent the interests of the public generally, our decisions often are reduced to a struggle between an applicant and those who would be directly impacted by the proposal under consideration.

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Ben FrostBen Frost is the Director of Public Affairs at New Hampshire Housing, where he coordinates federal and state legislative initiatives and provides direct technical assistance to municipalities to help them develop regulations promoting affordable housing and sustainable development. He frequently lectures on issues of affordable and workforce housing, planning and zoning law, and ethics.

Ben has over 25 years of experience as a land use planner, and over 15 years as an attorney. Previously, he was a Senior Planner with the NH Office of Energy and Planning, he was the executive director of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission, and he was also a planner and administrator in local and regional government in New Hampshire and elsewhere.

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