The Commissioner — Fall 2012

Commissioner's Voice

Are Planning Commissions Becoming Less Relevant?

By Marc Yeber
Planning Commissioner, City of West Hollywood, California

Planning Commissioner Representative, APA California Chapter

As the strain on available land becomes more pronounced, decisions that shape our communities have become more critical and complex. Yet many planning commissioners believe that our function has less influence in determining outcomes than it did a decade ago, as the focus on social-political agendas and revenue generation has trumped our task of effective city making. Fellow commissioners, representing jurisdictions throughout the Los Angeles metropolitan area, have frequently shared these concerns about our diminished role. In contrast to elected officials, our appointed positions—coupled with our varying professional backgrounds — inform our deliberations and shape our views on the conservation and growth of our neighborhoods. I approach this topic with the realization that the function and work of commissions (as well as planning staff) differ from state to state and city to city. While these views evolved locally, they may also exist elsewhere. With that said, is the land-use authority vested in planning commissions being usurped in today’s political climate and impulse to privatize the public realm?

Several iterated concerns expressed stem from recent trends affecting planning policy. First is the repeated use of entitlement strategies such as development agreements (as they are called in California) that are not supported with sufficient defined public benefit. Another is a growing reluctance to rely on the neighborhood perspective that is considered in commission meetings. Yet another issue is staff report analyses and conclusions that tend to reinforce the applicant’s point of view. Last is the disregard for report deficiencies and discount of reasoned testimony in favor of a predetermined outcome. Collectively, these issues undoubtedly diminish our review authority to adjudicate a broad spectrum of land-use issues.

Commissioners are delegated to safeguard the community’s character, but now are pinned uncomfortably between the elected officials with a political agenda and city staff with an economic one. Our role as a quasi-judicial body is no longer clearly defined.

At a time when the development pressures are great and the political stakes are high, should our role be better utilized as a shield to buffer policy from politics? Can development agreements be applied with more discretion and only in the most extraordinary circumstances? Is it possible for staff reports to be wholly objective and without any recommendation? If our contribution is to be meaningful, we need collaboration. If our perspective is to be germane, then our deliberations must be valued. If our role is to remain relevant, then commission members must be engaged not just from the dais, but from the beginning of the planning discussion.