Gaining Expertise in South Dakota Planning

by Janette Sprenger, Lawrence County, South Dakota

Janette Sprenger

Janette Sprenger

Remember how it was when you first began a career in Planning? How many years has it been? Did you go to school to master the discipline or did you happen upon it, as I did? Planning is a multidisciplinary subject. Much like the contents of a newspaper, it involves politics, economics, technology, business sometimes sports and very often opinion. It is challenging and interesting.

About a year and a half ago, I came to work in the Planning and Zoning Office in Lawrence County where I live in western South Dakota. The area is mostly rural and suburban residential, with quaint small towns dotted along the Interstate 90.  I was hired as an assistant to do a number of things for the office. I had no formal planner training but did have some local knowledge (or so I thought after living in the area for 17 years). I will never forget, upon interviewing one of the people that I work fairly close with now, informed me that in this position, “I would not know what I was talking about for the first year and a half.” I did not realize at the time just how true that statement was! Most of my experience had been in customer service, and I had gone to special training for it over the years. I did not know about the ordinances and building permitting process and how much I would learn about surveying, surveyors, and platting.

The first few months were a whirlwind of information; it was a must to keep good, clear notes. Things made sense one day when I simply had the basics in front of me in a notebook. Then a week or month later, after having been involved with different scenarios of a situation, the notes did not make sense or there was more to the basics than I knew at that time. The first year was learning a lot of legal verbiage and the variety of situations that the verbiage could address or not address.  There are special techniques to handling different situations in planning; such as the delicate position between an outraged landowner and the county commission.  All of the information that I have learned so far is a mix of facts and rules along with expanding people skills. It has seemed like a variety of puzzle pieces that need and eventually do fit together to make the entire Planning and Zoning Division successful.

I work with a great team that is always there to provide me assistance and knowledge and to the people that visit our office or calls. The problems encountered from day to day really make someone in my position have to fit those puzzle pieces together. I have spent a lot of time reading articles and listening to webcasts from planning organizations and companies. At first, those didn't always keep my attention, because the jargon was beyond me.

Lawrence County is in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. We have heavy, summer tourist traffic for sight-seeing and gatherings for automobile and motorcycle rallies. With that comes the opening of local seasonal business and vendors from out of town.  They all want to know what is allowed and what is not. It seemed to me that I had to ask someone else in the office the answer to every question that I was asked the entire summer. The others in the office never made me feel like I was an annoyance…bless ‘em.

Flash forward to now. I can usually answer the questions that I am asked many times completely and accurately. I have found that when lacking the knowledge on a topic, I can always focus on customer service skills to help the individual that I am working with feel comfortable and confident that I have a way to find the answer and will do my best to provide it for them. Things are just now starting to make sense in large sets. For example; how fire plans are necessary for new platting and how they both are needed before a building permit can be issued. The puzzle is beginning to take shape. Even though there are governmental and administrative changes along the way, I am beginning to see the bigger picture on things that had no connection to me before. I can always seek guidance from those I work with. They have a strong understanding of what they are doing. I admire that. How they remember it all is amazing. As it goes, being the newbie has its uncomfortable moments for sure but the knowledge I have gained (which is only the tip of the iceberg), lets me know I am growing and gaining expertise.


Janette Sprenger is a Planning & Zoning Administrative Assistant in Deadwood, Lawrence County, SD since Feb 2016. She gained her bachelor's degree in Social Science from Black Hills State University in 2014 and enjoys continuing personal study on all topics from geography and history to art and foreign language.


Published in October 2017

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