The Commissioner — Summer 2009

Commission Profile

Iowa City Zoning and Planning Commission

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."

The commission, which has seven members, serves in an advisory capacity to the city council. It reviews rezoning and development proposals, proposes changes to the zoning ordinance, and evaluates updates to the city's comprehensive and district plans. Commissioners serve five-year terms, of which no more than two may expire each year. While there is no term limit, it is rare for commissioners to serve more than two terms, according to Robert Miklo, senior planner with the city's Planning and Community Development Department.

There are no requirements regarding geography, experience, or background in order to become a commissioner. "We try not to have a concentration from any one neighborhood," said Miklo. "And the council works to ensure gender balance as required by state law."

Those new to the commission receive a two- to three-hour orientation. "Staff sits with new commissioners and gives them a copy of the comprehensive plan and support materials, including the zoning ordinance," said Miklo. "During the first month of their appointment, we take them on a zoning tour, going through various neighborhoods — starting with one from the 1920s — and showing how they developed over time."

Most of Iowa City's planning and zoning commissioners are, according to Miklo, "average citizens. Several come through the neighborhood associations."

Such was the case with Koppes. "I joined because in my neighborhood, which was lower income, there were lots of issues and I didn't like the direction things were going in."

The commission meets twice a month, though a recent slowdown in development proposals has resulted in fewer meetings over the past six months. Commissioners spend anywhere from four to 20 hours a month prepping for and participating in meetings, according to Ann Freerks, the commission's chair.

Commissioners receive a packet on the Saturday prior to their Thursday evening meeting. Miklo tries to cap staff reports at eight pages so as not to overwhelm commissioners with information. Neighborhood groups often submit additional information, which can run dozens of pages.

While commissioners are not compensated, they do receive, at various times during their tenure, a trip to the American Planning Association's national conference. Subscriptions to planning-related publications are also provided to them.

"I've learned a lot of lessons over the years," said Koppes. "Most importantly, don't go in with an axe to grind. Don't go in to solve one issue. Go in for the betterment of the community at large. Always keep that in mind. Otherwise you won't be effective."