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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September-October 2010

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Bytes of Note - The Citizen Planner

In the United States, planners have considerable control over land use, a key component of both the natural and built environments. Professional training in policy, architecture, transportation design, and engineering are all possible backgrounds for a capital-P planner. But planning commissions, typically composed of unpaid citizen volunteers, may or may not have individuals with formal training. Nonetheless, planning commissions are the organizational entities that make land use recommendations to our localities' governing bodies. For some decisions, such as subdivision approval and variances, planning commissions may have the final say-so. Land use decisions and policies are also made by citizens who serve on boards of zoning appeals (BZA) and various regional planning bodies.

The American Planning Association's article “The APA Fine Tunes the Planning Commission”1 notes that commissions haven't always kept pace with the times. Planning commissioners, as well as individuals serving on BZAs and regional planning authorities, are most often appointed, though sometimes elected. Even when they are professionals in a related field, knowledge is not the same as skill in policy discussion and practice. The capacities commissioners bring to the table, and how they interact with both the general public and professional planning staff, are key to how our land and resources are used. They are the people who make recommendations to elected officials about issues—ranging from development density to zoning—that affect sensitive environmental areas.

While the federal government has no say in comprehensive land use planning, the U.S. Department of Commerce's Standard State Zoning Enabling Act established states' rights to do so with two separate acts in the 1920s. The APA has links to the original legislation2 as well as analytical articles and history. George A. Dean's Tennessee land use page3 has a standard state zoning enabling act in a more easily read format. PlanningWiki4 includes a good overview of the general history of the planning movement and accepted definitions for planning terms. The City Beautiful movement5 is widely credited as being the forerunner of modern planning.

The foundation of planning is a “comprehensive” or “master” plan. The Planning Excellence Web site features a good definition.6 Comprehensive plans are visionary documents, usually on a 20-year timeline, of what a particular community strives to be. Planning staff, together with citizens and the Planning Commission, typically develop these; it's often a multi-month process, if not more than a year. The capacity of individual localities to carry this out effectively and efficiently varies widely. Staff training and professional experience, as well as citizen sophistication, affect the process and the product. When the draft is finished, the governing body holds public hearings prior to adopting it. While comprehensive plans are not legally binding, they are the starting point for both professional and citizen policy-makers alike. The legally enforceable document is the locality's zoning code, or ordinance, which ideally complements the comprehensive plan.

The inspiration for comprehensive plans arose in large part from the very real diseases, nuisances, and public safety hazards such as fires that resulted from unsanitary living conditions in the rapid unplanned growth of cities in the late 1800s. In response, localities strove to separate land uses, adopting what's termed “Euclidean” zoning, nicely explained at the Zoning Matters Web site7; Euclidean zoning actually gets its name not from Euclid the ancient Greek mathematician but from the court case Town of Euclid v. Amber Realty.8

Euclidean zoning has not withstood the test of time, however, in large part because it segregates activities from each other. By limiting land use to one type, we have succeeded in creating residential areas free from the noxious fumes of industry—and many of the other public health and safety issues Euclidean zoning set out to address—but at the same time isolated them from the schools, grocery stores, parks, and civic centers that comprise the fabric of life. In short, Euclidean zoning forces the antithesis of the vibrant community Jane Jacobs9 described in her classic 1961 work The Death and Life of Great American Cities.10

Jay Wickersham summarizes Jacobs' points in a Boston College Environmental Law Review article11 and lays out some of the thought about planning in the post-Jacobs era. Euclidean zoning has failed to provide the livable neighborhoods many citizens seek. A review article at Ped Shed12 points out that one-third of today's homebuyers want mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods, although 90 percent of new development is “conventional suburban sprawl.” Further, the use of vehicles that isolated residential areas requires is arguably a significant contributor to global warming.13 A combination of factors like these has led to the development of less rigid types of zoning ordinances, including “performance zoning.” Performance zoning regulates land use based on the impact a particular use of land will have, rather than density, height, or the use itself. For example, if a corner store would fit within limits of noise regulations and setback requirements, it could be allowed in a subdivision under performance zoning, even though it's a “commercial” use. The APA's Web site provides links to a few articles about performance zoning.14 Widespread application of “pure” performance zoning hasn't taken hold; instead it's more often combined with other types of zoning.15 The new urbanism and smart growth movements are additional responses to Euclidean zoning's shortcomings.16 The Smart Communities Web site links to the entire Performance Zoning Model Ordinance for Bucks County, Pennsylvania.17

While the policy wonks, professional planners, and educated citizen planners might be in complete support of performance-based zoning codes, the average citizen at the average public hearing can become vocal about concerns related to potential traffic, noise, and property value decreases if the update of the comprehensive plan shows that his neighborhood could host such developments as a daycare center, a small-scale grocery store, or multifamily housing. This is when education and knowledge become a poor substitute for planning commission members who have mastered fundamental leadership skills, are politically savvy, and abide by clear and respectfully enforced meeting processes.

Most commissions use Robert's Rules of Order18 as their procedural guide, but those who have looked at a recent copy know the rules are complicated beyond the capacity of most people to comprehend. For a good discussion of how and why to adapt Robert's Rules, start with ProfHacker's blog on Robert's Rules.19 He includes a link to “Survival Tips on Robert's Rules of Order,”20 which gives the technical details of the essential procedures.

For information specific to planning commissioners, and the unique challenges they face, the APA publishes The Commissioner, and it is available in PDF format online.21 Readers of the Planetizen Web site22 will find timely and relevant information about planning-related issues across the United States, including those specific to planning commissioner deportment. Planetizen also links to Web sites, “thinkers,” and books that will enrich citizen planner capacities. The Planning Commissioner's Journal23 is a paid subscription service, but the opening paragraphs of its articles are available to be read online, and commissioners may find that paying for an occasional download, if not a subscription, is well worth their funds if their local planning office can't afford to support such a subscription on their behalf. Kansas State University's agricultural extension program offers an overview of public leadership in the context of controversial public policy-making,24 including leadership style, the role of the governmental leader, and group development. Simple tools such as timers with lights for speakers, and clear policies on PowerPoint-type presentations25 and information distribution, help establish mutual understanding about the constraints within which both citizen planners and citizens must work.

Citizen planners often find that stress comes with controversial issues. Efficiently dealing with stress helps citizen planners to serve effectively, prevent burnout, and make the most of the talents and interests that bring them to the job in the first place. While geared toward an academic audience, the human resources department of the University of Wisconsin26 addresses conflict “styles” as well as the role that perceptions play in tense situations. The Mayo Clinic provides a detailed list of resources on stress management on a more general level.27

Planning commissioners who ignore public perception do so at their peril—especially in today's Web-based world. For a rude awakening about how planning commissioners may be seen if they're not scrupulous in their public behavior, see the blog on the Save Ardmore Coalition Web site.28 For those whose commission meetings are recorded, either for broadcast to the local cable channel or for the sake of record-keeping, watching oneself on tape is perhaps the best feedback mechanism around.

Finally, searching the keywords “citizen planning training” in Google yields a rich list of organizations that provide support and training at local, state, and national levels.





























Lesley Howard holds a Master's of Urban Affairs degree from Virginia Tech and is a Certified Citizen Planner in Virginia. A freelance writer, she served for six years as a planning commissioner for the Town of Blacksburg, Virginia, including two years as chair. She is a founding member of Shadowlake Village, a co-housing community and the New River Land Trust, both located in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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