PLANNER’S TOOLBOX: Seven steps for Onsight Inspections Done Right

by Brad Stebleton, Bernalillo, New Mexico

Would any of you buy a car without test driving it first? Without looking under the hood? Probably not. However, I still see items scheduled for hearing in front of planning commissions and even elected bodies when no planner from that jurisdiction has ever been to the property in question! That is a real disservice to the hearing body and it is potentially very embarrassing for the planning department when questions are asked, and it becomes obvious that the planner presenting the case has only seen the property on Google Earth. Visiting some sites in Western Planner country can be quite an expedition, but that visit is extremely helpful to everyone involved. Not only is an onsite inspection a critical part of the project review process, there are several important points to keep in mind in order to make this a successful endeavor.

Make sure that the property owner or at least someone who is empowered to make decisions with regard to the real estate is there.

It doesn’t do any good to meet just with an architectural technician or realtor who has no authority to decide anything. Technical people can greatly add to the meeting, but a responsible party is needed onsite so that information does not have to be passed along second hand.

Tread lightly and be respectful.

In many parts of the western region, this may be a citizen’s first experience with land use regulation, a concept that can be scary to some. If they perceive that this is some sort of heavy handed intrusion by the government, things can go from bad to worse. While onsite, expect to hear complaints about the “…(expletive deleted) government telling me what I can do with my property…” Don’t get dragged into this discussion…elected officials make policy, planners don’t. If the applicant perceives that you are trying to help them get something done within the rules, things will go better for everyone concerned.

Don’t make promises while in the field.

Many applicants will try to get you to make a commitment on behalf of your agency in the middle of an inspection. Don’t do it! It is very easy to make mistakes in the heat of the moment while you are out of your office and away from your reference materials. There is no harm in telling them that you’ll get back to them after you’ve had a chance to get back to headquarters, reflect on what you’ve seen, perhaps talk it over with colleagues, and access your resources. Just get back to the applicant promptly and address his/her question.

Don’t go on the inspection alone.

Hostile encounters are relatively rare in these situations, but they do happen. Remember that you are dealing with the property rights of Westerners, an often touchy issue. The likelihood of open hostility is greatly diminished if you don’t go in solo. There are other advantages to bringing someone else along when you go onsite. It is human nature to hear what you want to hear, especially when it comes to a risky endeavor like land development. Having a witness there helps when claims of “your planner said this was cool” arise at the planning commission meeting. This is also an opportunity to bring specialized expertise into the situation such as your civil engineer, fire marshal, or public works personnel. You may well need their input to complete your review of the project anyway.

Don’t take a decision-maker with you.

This is a bad idea on many different levels. It can get you into legal hot water. In New Mexico, as in many other states, public hearings are considered quasi-judicial items, where planning commissioners and elected officials are akin to judges. Meeting with an applicant onsite outside of the hearing room is, therefore, considered ex-parte communication for them. Also, much of the onsite inspection will be dominated by the applicant lobbying the official to vote for his/her way or project, not in addressing technical issues. It is not a bad idea for decision-makers to see a property before the hearing, but they shouldn’t meet with the applicant and they should speak with your attorney and clearly understand the ground rules first.

Document the inspection.

There are snazzy tools like laptops, blackberries, and digital cameras available today in order to do this, but even an old fashioned pen and paper will do just fine. It is important to record what you have seen, what the applicant has said, and what you have said to him/her. After you have returned to your office, send out an e-mail or letter to everyone who was there, documenting what occurred and what your recommendations are. This can be easily folded into your staff report to the hearing body.

Go in with an open mind.

It is natural to have preconceptions about an application before you see the property. However, it is critical not to allow those notions to cloud your review of the project. I can’t tell you how many times I had a particular idea in my head about a proposal when I saw it on paper, only to have my perception completely changed after touring the site.

Brad Stebleton is a senior planner for Sandoval County, NM. He currently serves as secretary on the board of Western Planning Resources and is a member of the Western Planner Editorial Board.

Published in the February/March 2014 Issue

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