The Commissioner — Winter 2010
Auburn, Alabama, Planning Commission
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."
Composed of nine members, the planning commission advises the city council on all matters involving planning and land use except those governed by subdivision regulations, over which it has final authority. The commission meets the second Thursday of each month as well as the Monday prior for a packet meeting. "People who have cases pending are there in case we have questions and contribute at our discretion," said Sparrow. The meeting, also attended by city staff, is open to the public.
Auburn's planning commissioners are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. They may serve two consecutive six-year terms before rotating off. "Since most elected officials are on four-year cycles, the longer terms of the commissioners, I'm speculating now, minimize the impacts of wholesale reversals in the election process," said Warren McCord, who has served on and off as a commissioner since 1974. Political influences also are minimized, he said, in that commissioners do not represent a particular constituency or geographic area.
Auburn's mayor has the option of serving on the planning commission or can name someone to sit in his stead. The mayoral seat on the commission, one of the nine, comes with full voting privileges.
"There's a wide variety of perspectives on our planning commission and a good bit of diversity," said McCord, adding, however, that the percentage of African American members is "not representative of the proportion of the population."
Newly appointed commissioners receive an orientation. "I usually call them and welcome them to the commission," said Forrest E. Cotten, AICP, Auburn's director of planning. "When they come in, I'll orient them to the workings of the city and what department does what."
Commissioners are encouraged to become certified Alabama planning and zoning officials through the Alabama Planning Institute, a continuing education program of the University of North Alabama. "The majority of members take advantage of it," said Sparrow. "We go to state meetings on occasion and feel part of the state planning community. It's beneficial to get a broader perspective beyond what we experience in Auburn."
Serving as a commissioner in Auburn is a challenge due to the highly educated population, according to McCord. "People are articulate and willing to express their opinions," he said. "They speak with passion and intelligence. They have researched the issue and can often point to other places where it may have succeeded or failed."
Both McCord and Sparrow attribute the commission's success to the city's top-notch planning department. "Our jobs as commissioners are a piece of cake, comparatively," said Sparrow. "It's pretty darn easy to serve when you have a staff as well trained, professional, and sensitive to the community as ours is."
Auburn's Planning Challenges
"Auburn is an oasis in a Deep South state," says Warren McCord, a city planning commissioner. "For 100 years the university dominated the economy and the faculty dominated society and politics. Over the last few decades, as we've struggled to diversify, we've had to deal with issues that virtually all transitioning communities face."
Growth pressure is one of them. The city's "very proactive and ambitious annexation program," which dates to the late 1980s, has caused the city to grow in a serpentine fashion and double in size to 56 square miles, says Forrest E. Cotten, AICP, the city's director of planning.
Annexation is attractive to many outside the city's borders because of Auburn's highly regarded school system, and to the city itself. "In Alabama, counties, with few exceptions, are not chartered, have no home rule, and cannot regulate land use," says McCord.
McCord says the city developed an annexation plan around 2006. "We're one of the few places in the South with an interactive growth model," he says. "We need to make more efficient use of our land," adds Cotten, "and we will continue to revise the annexation policy to target growth better."
What distinguishes Auburn is its use of performance zoning. "By the mid-1980s, many of us got tired of dealing with Euclidean zoning and guessing what people would do," says McCord. Because performance zoning allows many uses within a district, some residents don't fully understand it and others are hesitant to embrace it, both Cotten and McCord agree. "It has caused some angst, particularly in regard to multifamily housing," says Cotten, noting that student housing has become an issue.
With its downtown adjacent to Auburn State University and outlying borders close to the City of Opelika, Auburn is influenced by the decisions of other entities. "We struggle to develop standards that meet our citizens' expectations but don't handicap the community, particularly in regard to economic development," says McCord. "We have strong landscape and sign ordinances that some would like to see further strengthened, and we have curb-cut restrictions. Our concern is that if we place restrictions on commercial development that are more restrictive than the community next door, businesses can locate in Opelika and still market to students and Auburn families."
"We've worked to attract tier 2 and tier 3 auto parts manufacturers (such as Briggs & Stratton) due to the presence of Hyundai and Kia in cities nearby," Cotten says. "These are clean manufacturing businesses, but we need to be thinking about the post-auto economy if we're to remain successful."
As the city updates its comprehensive plan, McCord contends that changes in higher education need to be considered as well. "Universities are economic engines that will continue to generate innovations and, hopefully, jobs," he says. "There will be other changes, some that we don't yet realize, and it's important that we stay on top of them."