Planning commissions from around the country share their stories. Learn what works from front lines.
"Apart from the city council, it's the most important body in the city," says John Lettelleir, AICP, referring to the City of Frisco Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission.
The commission doesn't have a particularly high profile, but the panel is highly regarded in the community.
In the end, the planning commission's job is to ignore the politics and "take a long-term, as opposed to short-term, view of things," says Richard C. Bernhardt, FAICP, executive director of the Metro Planning Department. The commission has, in Bernhardt's opinion, been successful.
Consistency is key to the planning commission's success in the Charter Township of Canton, Michigan. "The commission has never made a decision inconsistent with the [comprehensive] plan — and that's phenomenal," says Jeffrey A. Goulet, Canton's community planner.
Torrington, Connecticut's planning and zoning commission "works hard — looking out for individual property owners while focusing on the betterment of the community as a whole," says Martin J. Connor, AICP, Torrington's city planner.
If planning commission meetings ran a little longer or increased in frequency, that would please Tom Biddle, chair of the Aiken County Planning Commission in South Carolina.
"We are a very hands-on commission," says Chair Charlie Rolfsen. "We bend over backwards to hear concerns and make sure all issues that are brought up in a public hearing are addressed.
The planning commission focuses on longer term issues, such as comprehensive and neighborhood plan development, while the newer zoning and platting commission handles more of the current planning.
"West Hollywood is an extraordinarily politically energized and engaged community," says planning commissioner Marc Yeber. "We walk a fine line — wanting to work with developers and applicants but also to minimize potential impacts."
Bernalillo County encompasses the city of Albuquerque and the open plains of New Mexico. It mixes centuries of history with the pressures of urban growth as the beauty of the region draws new residents yearly.
"Part of our job is to work out the details, to reach some sort of compromise, to come up with a solution so a project can ultimately go forward to the Zoning Board of Appeals," says planning board chair Mark J. Zarrillo, AICP.
"We want community involvement. It's important for people here to understand why decisions are made and to have a voice in what's happening," says Susan Culpepper, chair of the planning commission in Blue Springs, Missouri.
"There was a perception that the planning board spoke only to the development community," says Samuel J. Parker, Jr., AICP, chair of the Prince George's County Planning Board. "Over the last four years we've been proactive in engaging the community and have tried to turn things around."
Despite the downturn in the economy, planning is under way to revitalize downtown Owensboro and increase amenities along the Ohio River. With a $40 million grant from the federal government and $80 million in local public investment, the project calls for a riverfront park, downtown hotel and convention center, a market square, and an arts academy.
Like many other planning commissions across the country, the one in Auburn, Alabama, has used the past year to focus on the future. "The one positive that's emerged from the economic slowdown is that there's been time for us to talk about our comprehensive plan," said Emily Sparrow, the commission's chair. "As recently as 12 months ago, we were having 25 to 30 cases a month. Now we're down to about 10. So we have the chance to delve into the plan."
There's been significant improvement — in part due to the increased sophistication of neighborhood commissions — in the way we handle planning and zoning in Columbus," says Mike Fitzpatrick, chair of the Development Commission in Columbus. "As a result of their efforts and the interaction they now have with city staff, many issues are resolved before they get to us and, if something is still hanging by the night of the meeting, it's usually manageable."
My job is to really listen to the public — they have good ideas — and to keep an open mind," said Elizabeth Koppes, vice chair of the Iowa City, Iowa, Planning and Zoning Commission. "That's how you earn the community's respect. I think we are respected, though everyone realizes we don't have the final say."
Residents see the planning commission as a way for their voice and views to be heard," says Mike Reles, vice chair of the Purcellville Planning Commission. "We try to give townspeople regular opportunities by holding public input sessions and charrettes in addition to our regular meetings."