Zoning Practice — February 2005

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by James van Hemert, AICP, author of the January 2005 Zoning Practice article "The Development Review Process: A Means to a Noble and Greater End."

Question from Ned Wales:

I'm am planner/urban designer here at Gold Coast City Council in Queensland.

I am very interested in this topic —I see it as a key tool to achieving sustainable development and communities. Gold Coast is a tourist industry-based city with ample sunshine and beaches but short on long term vision. How does local government, middle management, acting as change agents, convince leaders to adopt change without fear? Development applications and site by site development means a piecemeal approach to land use, where master plans can often fall short of site specific outcomes. In such an environment of greed and ignorance, where market values prevail, how do you convince people that generation to come — who will have it harder and tougher because of short term gains (activities that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change) — are prioritized over long term benefits? With particular regard to future generations, are we morally bankrupt?

Answer from author James van Hemert:

You ask some penetrating and thought-provoking questions to which I will try to do justice in my response.

On the matter of long term sustainability vs. short term gains, I see a long standing tension that is almost always present in matters of planning and development. This is exacerbated by decisions of short term elected officials who may only be interested in immediately quantifiable results. Aside from the obvious need for more education and real-life examples of how both short and long term goals can be met with the right kind of development, I have often witnessed the development of a longer term vision arising from major mistakes or disasters. For example:

  • In response to "McMansions on ridgetops" in Castle Rock, Colorado the community undertook a community wide study and enacted legislation to effectively deal with the matter through design guidelines and stricter set back controls.
  • Ugly "big box" retail development in numerous communities across the United States has galvanized citizens and leaders to action in developing community plans and more effective design guidelines.

It appears that everyone wants to learn the hard way (my children are like that). The Chinese, for example, are now repeating many of the West's mistakes in urban development, but at a much more massive scale.

You need a coalition of voices to speak out on matters of long term sustainability. It may take time for many people to change their views — their worldview — and it may take some real life positive examples of at various levels — site specific development, neighborhood, and at the broader community level. The American West provides a good example of a slowly changing world view on how we develop and care for the land and our communities. The "rape and pillage" mentality is slowly being eroded to one of stewardship. Many communities are saying "no" to logging and mining as they realize that the natural beauty is more valuable both intrinsically and economically.

One of the amazing things about American society is the extent to which it organizes voluntary groups and institutions to serve specialized interests and concerns. Do you have voluntary activist organizations in your area? These groups often wield much influence and can be important allies to your cause.

You mention moving toward change without fear and ask how government officials can serve as change agents. I know a bit about this from my experience as a "change agent" in the Philippines. Some observations and experiences regarding cultural change:

  • Listen to people, especially those with whom you may disagree with.
  • Show by example — most planners in the U.S.A. are actually hypocrites in the way they live: they drive as many automobile miles as anyone, live in the same kind of energy and land consumptive housing as the rest of the population, etc. If you live in a large home with a three car garage on an acreage in a gated enclave, how can you with integrity speak about sustainability, mixed land use, higher density living, public transportation, etc?
  • Broaden stakeholder participation
  • Find champions for your cause
  • Be patient. Ultimately you must institutionalize the change that occurs
  • Use scenario building exercises with the community to help them see the ultimate results over time of individual policies and actions. Envision Utah is an excellent example.
  • Explore shared values. Ultimately you can find a very long list of shared values in a community. Build on those.

Morally bankrupt? My cynical side says yes. Look at the behavior of the U.S. with respect to the Kyoto Accord. No agreement and no national commitment on a sustainable energy policy. And our neighbor to the north, Canada, commits $4 billion to the cause in its federal budget (my home and native land!). In the U.S. there is an increasing reliance on fossil fuels with global ramifications beyond climate change.

My hopeful side says no. Many in the younger generation — my sons included — say they must be more responsible with resources — walk, bike, not have an excess of possessions. Here in Denver, Colorado, the taxpayers recently approved what will amount to a $10 billion tax increase over the next 20 years to build an extensive mass transit system of light and heavy rail. This initiative was strongly supported by developers and the business community.

In the end I am more hopeful than not. There are many people like you who care and have a long term vision. We have only have one planet and it is precious.

Question from Marcia Elkins, Growth Management Director, City of Rapid City, South Dakota:

Kudos! Excellent article on the organizational changes that we have been working at implementing in our community. Thanks for further defining the culture we are attempting to develop. Your article was right on point and is another tool we can use in communicating the changes to the city council, other departments and our staff. Thank you! Keep up the good work. I look forward to more on this important issue.

Answer from author James van Hemert:

I am very pleased to hear that the article was on target for your community. Your comments made my day. All those late nights and early mornings of writing are all worth it if I know that the work can make a difference somewhere. I would be very interested to learn more about what you are doing in Rapid City. Do you have information about this organizational change process you could share with me? Your comment about looking forward to more suggests to me that perhaps there is a "next level" to which this topic can move to.

If you are interested in engaging in some dialogue on this topic, I extend an invitation to you to attend our annual spring conference on April 21 and 22, 2005. I am presenting, along with Martha Brown of Milwaukee and Tim Belinski of Aspen, on the development review process as a means to achieving outstanding results. And of course there is much more at this event. Visit our website for more information: www.law.du.edu/rmlui/

Question from Eric Toll:

After 25 years in the public sector, I've made the move to private sector planning in a fast growing large metro. Almost universally, the local planning departments practice poor client relations. Phone calls are not returned, e-mail is not answered until days later, if not weeks later. Having directed a department in a fast growing community, I can see that the problems are inefficient processes.

Most agencies here require consecutive application processing, when concurrent processing would halve the number of projects going through the process.

I've talked to a couple of directors about their concerns with "staff is too small" or "can't fill vacant positions," but looking from the outside in, it's a problem of not changing "that's the way we've always done it." How can one diplomatically suggest a director re-look at the process?

Answer from author James van Hemert:

In most cases it will take an external prod to affect change. I would suggest that any communication be cast in a positive light and not be focused on a particular project or event. You could consider any of the following:

Suggest a departmental organization review by an outside expert such as Paul Zucker. Advice stemming from this could address several issues that are already clearly important to the Planning Director — high turnover, difficulty in filling positions, apparent lack of staff resources.

Find a way to have developer/applicant concerns be placed in the annual community survey. Many communities hire a consultant every year to evaluate the effectiveness of government services. If a community isn't doing this, they should. It is a wise use of public funds.

Get together with other customers who share your concerns and suggest an open roundtable meeting with the director and her managers where everyone can freely exchange concerns and ideas — both sides. I have found that often the developer-applicant-customer shares some of the blame for delays and poor review. If you are willing to listen to the director's concerns, she is more willing to listen to yours.

Give him a copy of my article and ask for feedback on whether there are any ideas he would consider.

When I worked for a relatively large planning department I observed a tendency to overstate the "problem" of understaffing and lack of resources. This is particularly true at budget time. City departments are often "rewarded" not for efficiency but for their ability to convince upper management that they have a dire need for more funding and staff. I participated in this myself, fearing the future ability to avail of resources when they were needed. In both the Irvine and Milwaukee cases that I wrote about, major change resulted from leadership at the very top. The Milwaukee planning department is still reeling emotionally from all the changes that have occurred.

On a personal note, I will share with you a perhaps not so politically correct method of dealing with the matter of timely review. I was asked by a developer if I could help achieve a very specific deadline for a rezoning application. Our department had a policy to never promise hearing dates so far in advance. I believed that the goal was achievable in the time frame they suggested, provided we all rolled up our shirt sleeves and made the commitment. Specifically, I responded by suggesting that we meet every two weeks at 7:30 a.m. for a breakfast meeting at a convenient location. Because we had agreed in advance on the meetings and they were in a very pleasant environment, we all looked forward to the meetings and kept the project moving forward. I credit the developer for thinking outside the box and helping to find a way that was enjoyable and very doable for staff. We made the hearing date desired by the developers and the project, in my own biased opinion, is turning out to be wildly successful.

P.S. Consider joining us at our 14th Annual Land Use Conference April 21 and 22. I will be presenting on this topic along with panelists from Milwaukee and Aspen.

Question from Charles Dupre:

I am a new appointee to the local regional planning commission (RPC). I also serve on the development review committee (DRC). I recognize that this committee is designed to streamline the local application and permitting process. The DRC completes the onsite reviews, listens to testimony from the applicants, and forwards recommendations to the RPC. This gives the RPC more time to plan.

A recommendation has been made to dissolve the DRC as an unnecessary function of the RPC. I disagree. The findings and recommendations of the DRC are very helpful to me in planning for the monthly meetings of the RPC.

I would like to know more about the origin, purpose and function of DRCs. Any links to other websites and any comments you wish to offer are appreciated.

Answer from author James van Hemert:

The primary purpose of a DRC is to provide specialized and coordinated advice to a review or decision-making body. More specifically, with respect to substance, it can function in a purely technical fashion or a broader aesthetic or planning review based on guidelines or standards. From an organizational point of view it can serve to coordinate internal staff department reviews, serve to coordinate external agency reviews, or incorporate broader stakeholder input by including citizens and even hearings. In almost all cases it serves an advisory role, with final decision making being reserved for department heads or an approving body such as a town council.

It is possible for such committees to become dysfunctional and fail to achieve the organizational objective of providing a coordinating and advisory role. Ideally they should streamline the process and save time for a higher level review authority. They can play a very important role in serving as a filter for cases that may not warrant further review and for identifying and narrowing down the critical issues. Perhaps most importantly, they serve to increase review effectiveness. Saving time is all well and good, but ultimately effectiveness of the decision making process may be more important. There is a constant tension between effectiveness and efficiency. In the Aspen case I wrote about the new stakeholder committee caused the process to take longer than was typical, although everyone agreed it was an improvement.

I am unable to answer your question about the origins of the DRC. My usual sources of info revealed nothing. I have noted, however, that as communities grow in size and complexity such committees are added as a means of handling the sheer volume of land-use applications. A planning commission in a small community may handle virtually all land-use applications including site plan review. As communities add professional staff and the workload increases such matters are delegated to staff who may oversee a DRC. From what I can gather of your inquiry, it appears that you serve on a DRC that comprises members of the larger regional body. I do not have immediate experience with such an arrangement; however, I would agree with you that such a committee can provide more time for the full body to spend time planning, rather than primarily responding to development proposals. Few enough planning commissions actually do much planning as it is.

You may wish to visit the following websites for more information. ICMA requires membership to access their full body of information: