Featured Planner: Dan Hanson heads planning efforts in a friendly South Dakota college town

by Neil Putnam, Mitchell, SD

Dan Hanson, pictured above, has been involved in planning efforts in Brookings for over 25 years. Photo provided by the City of Brookings. 

Dan Hanson, pictured above, has been involved in planning efforts in Brookings for over 25 years. Photo provided by the City of Brookings. 

Dan Hanson serves as the planning and zoning administrator for the City of Brookings, a friendly college town, located in eastern South Dakota, half-hour west of the Minnesota border. Hanson is considered one of the most respected planners in the state, working on critical legislation and providing mentoring to fellow planners. 

Getting his start

Hanson grew up in a small Norwegian community in southwest Minnesota.  Hanson explains that, “Many communities in this area were created in the late 1800s by immigrants from European countries such as Norway, Poland, Denmark, and Germany, to name a few.”   

After high school, Hanson moved to Brookings, which is home to South Dakota State University (SDSU), the largest in the state. By South Dakota standards, Brookings is considered a large city with over 22,000 residents and is the fourth largest city in the state. Hanson describes Brookings as a typical “college town” with numerous college rentals, apartments, fast food restaurants and pizza parlors.  He also mentioned that Brookings has a diversified industrial base, well-kept neighborhoods, beautiful parks and easy access to Interstate 29.   

During his first six years in Brookings, Hanson worked as a construction worker and factory worker before attending SDSU at the old age of 25. While attending college, he married his wife Judy and they had two children.   To make ends meet, Hanson worked full-time while attending college at the local county jail from midnight to 8:00 a.m.  This experience in law enforcement provided Hanson the opportunity to study criminal, civil, and property laws.  He graduated from SDSU in 1985 with a degree in Business Economics.

From working at the jail to planning

Following graduation, Hanson joined the City of Brookings Engineering Department as the Planning, Zoning, and Housing Administrator.  He attributes being selected based on his experience in law enforcement, working at the county jail, since the new job involved enforcing housing and zoning regulations.   

Hanson describes the position as a combination of city planning, zoning code enforcement, and rental housing inspections.   Since this was a ‘new’ position, training was limited. So in order to gain a formal understanding of land use planning, Hanson spent his first years taking planning courses from the University of Wisconsin, traveling to state and regional planning seminars, and reading many planning books from APA. 

Fortunately, Brookings had adopted its first comprehensive plan in 1966 which included a straightforward zoning ordinance and detailed subdivision ordinance.  The comprehensive plan had been modified somewhat in 1983.

Working in planning for 28 years

Your judgment is no better than your knowledge.
— Dan Hanson

Hanson’s early years on the job involved reviewing the city’s land use history, computerizing paper files, and streamlining the housing inspection procedures for around 3,000 rental dwelling units in addition to ongoing rezonings, subdivision plats, site plan reviews, variances and special exceptions.  In 1994, the zoning ordinance was updated and restructured with minimal impact on the original area regulations.  

He described that his greatest professional challenge happened in 1999 when a complete rewrite of the 1966 comprehensive plan was undertaken.   The Vision 2020 Comprehensive Plan was completed in about 30 months and formally adopted by the governing body in February 2002. The plan was created entirely in-house and has projections to 2020.  In addition, the zoning ordinance was updated and the subdivision ordinance was also completely rewritten.

Hanson said, “Today, Brookings has a newly created Community Development Department with two planners and two code enforcement officers. The city has not experienced an economic slowdown over the past four years due to its population growth and continuing expansion of SDSU as a Division 1 institution.”  

However, Brookings still faces the following major challenges in the future: 

  • Maintaining an adequate supply of affordable housing
  • Creating walkable neighborhoods
  • Continuing to diversify its commercial and industrial base
  • Managing storm water runoff, which is a problem as the city is nestled between two floodplains 

When asked about advice to fellow planners, Dan said, “The importance of educating the public, governing body, and the planning commission on land use principles and objectives cannot be overstated.  It is vital that planners are given the opportunity to provide in-service training on a regular basis to these groups.”

Hanson’s office motto is simple,  “Your judgment is no better than your knowledge.” He explained, “Everyone involved in making decisions regarding land use planning needs the proper knowledge to make sound decisions.  This motto also pushes me to seek out the latest information so I can keep pace with new ideas and review unique solutions to old problems.  I encourage all planners to do likewise.  Your community will benefit greatly!” 

Neil Putnam is the former president of the South Dakota Planners Association and is the city planner for the City of Mitchell, SD. 

Published in the February/March 2013

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