Planning Commissioners’ Corner: Wearing two hats? Seven tips for planners when serving on the planning and zoning commission

by Mark Apel, Bisbee, Arizona

In small rural communities in the West, it’s not unusual for planners to be called up to perform their civic duty by serving on their local planning and zoning commission. Some members of the public may see this as a conflict of interest. It is only a conflict of interest if you, as a commissioner, stand to receive some kind of pecuniary or preferential benefit as a result of decisions made by the commission you serve on. If this is the case, then planners should recuse themselves from any deliberations.  Otherwise, serving as a planning commissioner is a great contribution to your community. It’s not often planning commissions get volunteers to offer the level of expertise on land use matters like the kind  professional planners bring. Moreover, serving on a planning commission is an opportunity for Western Planners to see things from the other side of the table, so to speak. This is true in terms of better understanding your community’s staff limitations as well as having a more personal stake in the decisions you make for your community.

Similarity between the hats

Actually, the hats aren’t really that different, metaphorically speaking. In both positions – as a professional planner and a volunteer planning commissioner – you are bound by professional ethical standards, state statutes governing public involvement, your local zoning regulations, and adherence to your community’s plan. However, serving on a commission entails more nuanced communication and consensus-building with fellow commissioners. The same holds true for dealing with the members of the public that participate in your meetings. The people who show up to speak at your meetings aren’t just “the public” but also friends and neighbors that you may interact with outside the meeting room on a variety of levels. This also applies to people in your community who come before your commission as applicants for rezonings, conditional uses, and the like.

The do’s and don’ts when wearing both

Here are a few pointers for professional Western Planners considering volunteer service to their local planning commission:

TIP ONE: Don’t make assumptions about the planning staff: 

Don’t assume that your community’s planning staff is as equipped as you may be in your professional capacity with your firm or jurisdiction. There are often disparities in funding, technology and staffing between small incorporated towns and larger county planning jurisdictions or private planning firms.

TIP TWO: Do give specific examples: 

Offer concrete examples and advice to your community’s staff, if they are seeking substantive input from the commission.

TIP THREE: Do refer to the community plan: 

Remember to remind your fellow commissioners and staff about your community’s plan and most importantly, its policies, as you deliberate over land use decisions. Since you have likely had the experience of drafting plans in your capacity as a professional planner, you have a unique perspective on their relevance.

TIP FOUR: Don’t assume that you have all the answers: 

Don’t assume, or let others assume that just because you are a professional planner that you have all the answers. Be judicious in your comments and be cognizant of the value of your fellow citizen planners.

TIP FIVE: Don’t jump on the soapbox: 

When responding to members of the public, be fair, sensible and aware of how your position on the commission reflects on you as an individual and on the city or town as a whole. Don’t use your position as a political soapbox.

TIP SIX: Don’t communicate when not on the public record: 

Avoid “ex-parte” communication with other board members and applicants regarding matters that will be coming before you on the commission.

TIP SEVEN: Do look for training opportunities: 

Keep your eyes open for planning commissioner training opportunities. As a Western Planner, you likely have ready access to these kinds of resources.

To serve on your local planning commission is a privilege. It’s a great chance to apply your professional knowledge in volunteer service to your community. As Western Planners, we have firsthand experience working as staff or consultants to planning commissions, development interests and the public. As planning commissioners, we are elevated to civic service and should be mindful of the responsibilities that come with that position.

Mark Apel is a former county planner and currently works with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension as a Community Resource Development Agent. Mark is also the chairman of his local planning and zoning commission in Bisbee, Arizona.
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