The Commissioner — Winter 2013

Commission Profile

Planning Commission of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee

By Karen Finucan Clarkson

The mayor and council rely heavily on agencies and boards," says Stewart Clifton, vice chair of the planning commission of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County, Tennessee. That's not necessarily a surprise given that the council is composed of 40 elected members with varying backgrounds and priorities. "As a result, we get some unsophisticated, albeit passionate, input as well as some that's thoughtful and insightful."

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. "The council follows the commission's recommendation over 90 percent of the time," he notes. It takes a two-thirds majority, or 27 votes, for the council to override commission decisions.

That doesn't mean planning commissioners aren't lobbied. "It is not illegal for us to have informational contact with anyone — citizens, neighborhood groups, proponents, or developers," says Clifton. "It is, however, totally unethical to make up your mind without hearing from all parties."

That point is emphasized during an informal orientation for new planning commissioners. "There are two sides to every issue and they need to hear them before committing," says Bernhardt, who stresses to commissioners "the importance of the general plan and having a vision for the future. ... We show them decisions that are good and what the results are."

Ten members comprise the Metro Planning Commission. Two, the mayor and the chair of the Planning and Zoning Committee of the Metropolitan Council, are charter members. The mayor, who usually names a designee to sit in for him, appoints the eight other commissioners, who are confirmed by the council and serve four-year, staggered terms without compensation. There is no term limit, though when it comes to reappointment, the mayor "looks at attendance and whether they function as workable members, not obstacles," says Bernhardt.

"Mayors typically strive for diversity — racial, social, and geographic — though it's not required," says the executive director. "There's usually a balance between neighborhood and development interests."

Commissioners' backgrounds and knowledge of planning and development vary, though Clifton notes "an increasing trend toward the appointment of those with knowledge or credentials, which can be problematic. ... Many people, especially architects, have to recuse themselves."

The Metro Planning Commission meets twice a month for about two or three hours, beginning at 4 p.m. A consent agenda is followed by 15 to 20 action items. "During the heat of things in '06 and '07, there would be more items and meetings could go four or five hours," says Bernhardt.

The commission's vice chair estimates he spends an additional hour or so preparing for each meeting. "We get everything — agenda, staff analysis — six days ahead," he says. "We do rely on the experience of staff because although we're commissioners, we're all busy people with jobs."

That reliance on staff doesn't always equate to approval of staff recommendations. Each commissioner brings something different to the table, notes Bernhardt, "and their best decisions come when they receive input from their fellow commissioners. I don't expect them to simply rubber-stamp staff reports."

Planning Issues in Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee

A boomtown in the 1960s and '70s, Nashville witnessed "unimpeded development that was not well planned," says Stewart Clifton, vice chair of the planning commission of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County. Nearly half a century later, the community has "committed itself to sustainability and walkability."

That commitment becomes apparent when one examines the recent efforts and decisions of the planning commission. The community's new form-based downtown zoning code, adopted in February 2010, "moves the focus away from land use to community character and results in more walkable, more diverse — in terms of income — development," says Richard C. Bernhardt, FAICP, executive director of the Metro Planning Department. "The commission, through its work on the zoning code, has had a major impact."

That impact includes a virtual elimination of requests for variances in the downtown. During 28 months before the code was adopted, all of the $176 million in development required a variance. In the 28 months since, there's been $544 million in development without a single variance, according to Bernhardt.

"We always look at ways to further development in downtown, where the infrastructure is," says Clifton. "We've had tremendous success transforming middle-class neighborhoods — some historic, others not but still dense — into places where people want to live. Unfortunately, we have no real answer to gentrification."

The council and commission were able to come together recently on the adoption of a redistricting plan. "The commission came up with several options and got a plan adopted unanimously through the council," says Bernhardt. "It was an open and engaged process between council members and neighborhoods."

Neighborhood plans, of which there are 14, now rely on community character as opposed to land use. "The commission was instrumental in engaging and educating the community on the benefits of planning" as part of the creation of a Community Character Manual in 2008, according to Bernhardt. Based on the look and feel of neighborhoods, centers, corridors, and open spaces, this planning approach establishes guidelines for the form of the built environment in categories ranging from untouched natural land to intense urban centers.

Development of a new general plan — Nashville 2040 — will occupy commissioners' time over the next two and a half years. While Clifton finds the prospect of plan development "exciting," he appreciates the responsibility. "We have the opportunity to engage the community in a well thought-out manner ... and come up with a plan that isn't just about growth but the quality of growth we want in our community."