by Brad Stebleton, Bernalillo, New Mexico
A number of years ago a citizen activist appeared at one of our county’s planning commission meetings and offered what seemed at first an incredible suggestion. Since the planning commission is largely a recommending body and the Board of County Commissioners “can do what they want anyway” despite the advice of the planning commission and since, in this individual’s estimation, planning commission decisions are “almost always overturned” by the governing body, he suggested that the entire planning commission immediately resign! Thankfully none of the planning commissioners took his advice, but it begged an often-asked question: why have a planning commission?
Having worked for a number of years in a community that lacked a planning commission before assuming my current position, I have been on “both sides of the street” and can therefore offer some insights into the value of the planning commission.
A planning commission gives elected officials a better opportunity to do the things that people elected them to do. In my old community, council meetings would often drag on for hours with loaded agendas featuring minor planning matters such as variances and home occupation permits along with major policy issues like budgeting and legislation. Policy matters would often get short shrift as the council plodded through an overloaded docket. Often, the minor planning matters would also receive inadequate attention, as they seemed horribly insignificant when compared to major issues facing the community. By contrast, governing body meetings in my current (and much larger) jurisdiction are frequently very expedient as the county commission focuses most of its energy on the county’s important policy issues while the planning commission addresses routine planning business.
The planning commission helps to prepare the governing body to face major planning decisions. When our governing body is confronted by a major planning decision, they can be sure that it has already had a full public review and careful attention from a group of dedicated volunteers that has sent on a solid, well-prepared recommendation. This not only saves the governing body time in its deliberations, but gives them more assurance when they do “make the call” on a major planning matter. In my former community, hearings often got bogged down in lengthy discussions of technical details between the council, the applicant, and the staff. Deferrals were quite common due to an overcrowded agenda, the length of time needed to review a case “from scratch,” and a natural lack of assuredness related to the missing level of review that a planning commission would have provided.
The planning commission provides valuable support for the staff. There are always going to be disagreements and dissension around major planning issues in a community. However, in my old jurisdiction, there was no buffer between general public review of staff work and the governing body’s review and adoption of that work. As a result, the staff person could find himself “out on a limb” very quickly due to dissatisfied citizens. During one particular long-range planning exercise, the staff was “blind-sided” very late in the process by a small group of disgruntled citizens who went to certain elected officials with complaints about a proposed plan. It was all worked out satisfactorily in the end, but there was a great deal of unnecessary and time-consuming arguments, and strife before matters were resolved.
On the other hand, our county has a planning commission that has come through time and time again to support the staff in its efforts. In the process of revising the Zoning Ordinance several years ago, planning commissioners chaired and attended 14 different public meetings at which drafts of the ordinance were reviewed. By the time that the county commission held a study session on the ordinance, public concerns had been largely addressed. Also, a majority of the planning commission sat alongside the staff at that session, making it clear that this ordinance was not a “planner’s law” but was “owned” by the public, via the planning commission.
The planning commission can focus on planning. In contrast to elected officials, the only job of a planning commission is planning. They do not have to worry about budgets, employee unions, bond issues, redistricting, or running for office. As a result, a veteran planning commissioner can become a valuable community resource, not only to the staff and the governing body, but to the community as a whole.
After working with a planning commission for the past 17 years, I would definitely hesitate before going back to a community that does not have such a body in place. I believe that most planners that have been in both situations would agree with that sentiment. The fact that most jurisdictions in New Mexico and the West have such commissions is a testament to the value of the citizen planner. My former community, aided by a change in political leadership, appointed its first planning commission in 2000 and has never looked back.
Which brings us back to our citizen activist. At least in our case, he was dead wrong when he stated that the governing body routinely ignores and overturns planning commission recommendations. In the past ten years, our planning commission has only made one recommendation that was not upheld by the governing body. His call for a mass resignation does raise an important issue, however. It is easy for the planning commissioner to become an unappreciated asset in a community, and it is important that all of us, staff, and elected officials alike, work to make certain that does not happen.
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 April/May 2015 Issue