The decisions your local planning commission and zoning board of appeals make have a tremendous impact on the look and feel of your community. Knowing how your local planning groups work and how you can play a role gives you a valuable tool in shaping your community’s present and future.
Politics in planning
The planning board, the community’s elected officials, and you and your community residents all have a voice in the planning process. Of course, politics and personalities can undercut the planning process, says Michael Blue, director of community development for the Highland Park (Ill.) Planning Commission, especially when commission decisions come up for approval from elected city or county officials.
He notes that a community near his disbanded its planning commission because of disagreements between the commission and the town’s elected officials. Some communities also try to shut citizens out of the process by letting planning staff make many development decisions without public hearings.
But “there’s clearly a trend toward more community participation and greater transparency in the process,” says Greg Dale, partner at McBride, Dale, Clarion, and co-author of The Citizen’s Guide to Planning, 4th edition.
A project in Blue’s community shows how compromise can work: A house of worship wanted to construct an outdoor patio for events. Neighbors expressed concern at a public hearing about the light and noise it would add during evenings. The project was approved by the planning board and the city council, but only after the group agreed to reduce the size of the patio and to not hold events after 10 p.m.
How does planning work?
Most communities have some form of city or county planning commission. In general, this volunteer board of local residents recommends to the community’s elected officials how the community’s land should be used—where a new shopping center will be located, whether the new subdivision should be built with one home to an acre or three, or how to best convert city land into a park. In a few communities, the planning board’s decision is final. Professional planners working for the city are also part of the planning process.
“Planning boards don’t make their decisions arbitrarily,” says Blue. “They base their rulings on the community’s long-range master plan for land use and on the zoning, site development, and subdivision rules created to carry out that plan. If a planning commission’s decision doesn’t follow those rules, there’s a good chance it’ll be sued by the developer.”
Voice your view to planners
Before a board approves a proposed land use, it’ll hold a public hearing. If your property is next to or within a certain distance of the proposed project, the commission will notify you by certified mail about the hearing. Most town regulations also require that the commission publish a notice in the newspaper for two weeks or so before the hearing. Or review planning commission minutes, which are often posted online and are available to the public at the planning office.
The public hearing on a project usually takes place after the planning board has reviewed and approved a preliminary plan for the project. This plan will include drawings showing where the projects’ roads, open spaces, and buildings will be located. The preliminary plan may also include studies on how the proposed land use will affect traffic, the environment, the town’s infrastructure, and its schools. In some cases, developers will hold neighborhood meetings before submitting a preliminary plan, but it’s not usually required.
Make your case
In larger cities, you may have to register online ahead of time to speak. In smaller communities, just show up. You can also send in written comments in most places.
If you attend a hearing, be as specific as possible about your concerns and how the development might affect your property or life. If a retail superstore is planned, don’t just say you don’t like the store. Provide concrete reasons: It’ll increase traffic or add to storm water runoff because of its parking lot. And back it up.
Prepare for the hearing by reviewing your community’s planning documents and zoning regulations to see how the proposal fits, suggests Dale. All documents are available to the public, often online, although you may have to go to the planning office to review them. If you think the project will generate too much traffic, for example, review the traffic study and see what it projects. Look at where stop lights and stop signs will be. If there’s no traffic study and you have a reason to think that the project will increase traffic, you can request one. The planning commission may agree to your request.
How much time should you commit?
Reviewing a plan could take a few hours or two or three days of work. Planning meetings can last several hours; longer if a controversial issue brings out lots of speakers. Preparing your presentation for a board will take some research reading the proposal, understanding the proposal’s impact and going the meeting. You may also want to rally support from others in your community to speak for or against a proposal. Cumulatively, expect to spend about a week’s worth of time. Ongoing, to review planning board information, budget two to four hours a month, depending on how often the board meets.
Beyond the hearing
Depending on the results of the public hearing, the commission will often ask for further studies and modifications to the proposal before making a final decision. But the commission’s approval isn’t usually the end.
In most communities, the city council or other local governing body must approve the commission’s recommendations. The governing body will pay particular attention to the financial impact of plans, as well as voter sentiment. The two-stage process provides checks and balances in the planning process and gives you another opportunity to influence the decision. A city council will often hold a second public meeting on a proposal, especially if it’s controversial, says Blue. Planners and elected officials agree “about 50% of the time,” he says.
Other ways to get involved
Most communities have subcommittees—many staffed by appointed volunteers—that address issues from park and trail maintenance to historic preservation. To participate, contact your mayor, council representative, or the town’s planning staff to express interest. You may even want to become part of the planning commission itself.
Individual community members also play an important role in creating and revising a community’s master plan, a document that spells out the community’s vision for its future. An important part of creating or revising a master plan every five to 10 years is community “visioning” meetings, where individuals can express their ideas of the community’s future. Requirements to participate are similar to speaking at a planning meeting.
Change is inevitable. By becoming actively involved with city or county planning, you’ll have a voice in how that change takes shape.