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The Planning Commission at Work

Be the Apple of Your Commission’s Eye

We recently focused on problems that can be caused by “bad apple” planning commissioners. It’s time for some balance now — as we’ll share some of the characteristics we’ve found can make for “good apple” commissioners. Just as negative attitudes and behavior often leads to problems, positive behavior and habits can greatly increase the odds that your commission will be a constructive force in your community.

Top 10 cartoonLike David Letterman, we’ll offer our “top ten” list in reverse order. Our thanks to Chris Robinson, Planning and Zoning Division Manager for Paulding County, Georgia, for his thoughtful input.

10. Show up. Collaborative decision-making works best when all interests are represented. Make attending the planning commission meetings a priority and participate. You’re needed for a quorum, but more importantly, you’re needed for your knowledge of and concern for your community.

9. Prepare yourself. You will be far more effective in your role as a planning commissioner if you are fully prepared for meetings.

  • Read your community’s comprehensive plan and be familiar with the goals and policies that guide land use decisions.
  • Review pending development applications and discuss any questions you may have with your planning staff in advance of the meeting.
  • Be known as the planning commissioner who knows what they’re talking about — and enjoy the respect of your peers and the public.

Devote a few minutes of each meeting to learning more about a planning-related topic that is relevant to your community.

8. Contribute to preparation of the whole. When Jim served on the Muncie/Delaware County (Indiana) Plan Commission, he instituted the practice of a 10-15 minute “in-service” training at the beginning of each meeting.

Devoting a few minutes of each meeting to learning more about a planning-related topic that is relevant to your community can not only increase the knowledge of your planning commission, but it can also engage the whole commission, as commissioners takes their turn sharing research and information.

You could even start this tradition by discussing a column from PlannersWeb — perhaps one of ours!

7. Check your personal opinions at the door. Your role as planning commissioner requires that you base your decisions on the standards contained in your zoning ordinance and/or by-laws, and focus on the community’s best interest. Your position as planning commissioner is to advocate for what’s best for the community as a whole. Be above making negative personal remarks in any setting about applicants or your fellow planning commissioners.

Good Apples illustration by Marc Hughes for PlannersWeb.com6. Visit subject properties in advance of the meeting. Maps, plans, and elevations provided in the application are no substitute for viewing the site and its surroundings on foot. Even driving by a site to check it out will not allow you to observe details that may be important in helping make the best recommendations. It’s also important to look at things AROUND the site. They may well impact the site and be affected by what happens on the site. Drainage, traffic, views, and character are of particular importance.

We discussed various ways this can be done without violating Open Meetings Act requirements in a previous article, “A Walkabout Approach to Public Meetings.” Editor’s note: See also Greg Dale’s article on how to avoid ex parte communication problems: “Site Visits: Necessary But Tricky” and Alan Weinstein’s articles on Open Meetings Laws.

5. Understand and use the full range of tools available in the decision-making process to help ease potential land use conflicts. These include not only placing conditions on land uses, but also using your comp plan and design/development guidelines as a tool to encourage the developments you want in places that are already appropriately zoned and have the services to support it. (If you don’t have design/development guidelines — get some. We’ll also be writing an article on this soon).

4. Declare conflicts of interest without embellishment and leave the room. Even being in the room will cause your colleagues to look your way for subtle indications and body language that may influence their decision during discussion and votes. Simply leaving the room is the best way to avoid ethical concerns.

adult only rubber stamp
We warn you that if you click on the Adults Only button you’ll find what some might consider a disturbing image — so do so at your own discretion! {;- )

3. Dance naked. You might remember this “tip” from several of our previous columns — which we sneakily inserted to make sure if you were actually reading what we had to say! This IS the naked truth. Celebrate it!

2. Take good notes in case of challenges or questions. This could involve the use of a template or checklist to ensure that every case is treated uniformly, and that each case’s deliberations are completed. If questions come up later, having accurate minutes is invaluable. But it can also help if you’ve kept notes — even quick notes in the margins of the staff report or doodle sketches will help you recall how you arrived at your decision. Editor’s note: Take a look also at “Drafting Land Use Findings,” by attorneys Gary Kovacic and Mary L. McMaster.

Be a good apple, not a bad one — and you’ll be the apple of your planning commission’s eye!

1. Use your ordinances and guidelines effectively. Use your community’s comp plan, zoning ordinance, and development guidelines to help guide decisions, but make sure these are simultaneously clear enough to avoid needing a judge to interpret what can be done and flexible enough so you get development that reinforces your community’s character and identity.

Be a good apple, not a bad one — and you’ll be the apple of your planning commission’s eye!

In our next PlannersWeb column, we’ll take a look at how to develop your own design/development guidelines — both formal and informal. Stay tuned and happy planning.

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.