Zoning Practice — May 2007

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by John R. Nolon, author of the April 2007 Zoning Practice article "The Quiet Revolution in Training Citizen Planners."

Question from Kristen Eide-Tollefson:

How can we help planning officials to help their counties, cities, and townships prepare to integrate energy planning and economic development in their planning exercises?

Comment/Context: I am a recent graduate of the mid-career program at the Humphrey Institute, focusing on public engagement in Energy Planning, Policy & Infrastructure Development. We have a very lively set of initiatives here in Minnesota on Community-Based Energy Development (CBED), and a well-developed subregional CERTS program, of Clean Energy Resource Teams in seven zones throughout the state.

Many of these citizens, some of them local commission members, are providing major leadership on the renewable energy front. Particularly in combining local economic development opportunity with conservation and local generation alternatives to dependence upon central station contracts. Other municipalities are signing up to become 'green cities'. Churches, institutions and community associations of all kinds want to take responsibility for their 'carbon footprints'.

At the government level, counties have increased pressures to address energy planning, conservation, and renewable energy in comprehensive planning. Indeed, it's difficult to see how we can do comprehensive planning without, finally, integrating planning for energy and conservation. In addition, here in Minnesota, community-based projects under the CBED tariff are required to get county support.

Do you have some ideas about how your initiative can support energy planning at the local level?

Answer from author John Nolon:

Kristen, most state legislatures provide authority to local governments to adopt comprehensive plans and land-use regulations that achieve objectives such as energy conservation. They seldom usurp local authority, and they infrequently tell local governments how to plan and regulate. In this setting, training can be an method of informing and encouraging local legislators and planners to emphasize energy conservation as they grow and develop.

Localities, as you know, can add discrete provisions to their comprehensive plans regarding topics such as energy conservation and, in many states, they can require new development to meet a variety of energy standards. Through training, this authority can be explained, model plan components explained, and a number of local zoning and land-use provisions discussed. When this is supplemented, in training, with testimonials by other local officials who have taken exemplary actions, trainees are more likely to act than when presented with a best practices manual or model plan or law.

Ideally, the state government would provide funding for local energy conservation planning, reward communities that do such planning with a priority in the award of state grants for infrastructure and other benefits, and offer local governments technical assistance and best practices. Even without these ideal assists, training can be effective to move local leaders to adopt innovative practices.

Question from Boyd I. Maher, Certified Local Government Coordinator, Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Department of Arkansas Heritage:

Not a question, but a (hopefully helpful) comment:

The historic preservation movement has known for some time about the pressing need to train local preservation commissioners in best practices. In fact, a number of states even require that commissions meet a certain training requirement for their city or county to participate in the Certified Local Government (CLG) program. Entities like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions, the National Park Service, and a number of other public and nonprofit agencies at the state and local levels have been assisting local preservation commissions and their staff in meeting these training requirements for decades.

One question that local officials often ask is: Why should we send the historic preservation commission to (this or that) seminar/workshop/conference when we don't do that for the planning commission?

The answer: Maybe you should! If you think training is expensive, try ignorance!

Thanks for bringing some attention to this topic!

Answer from author John Nolon:

Boyd, your good comment puts a finger on one of the issues that arises whenever a state legislature considers adopting a training requirement for citizen members of local land-use boards: its cost. Many small and medium-sized communities simply don't allocate sufficient funds for the proper education of these important local volunteers. In this environment, state legislators hear complaints about how training requirements create unfunded mandates that impose costs on fiscally strapped localities.

One response to this barrier to the adoption of a mandatory training requirement is for the state, APA planning chapters, universities, and others to design cost-effective and convenient training programs. It is possible to create a standard training module covering a variety of important topics, including historic preservation, that can be available on line, on DVD or CD, or in training manuals that can be sent to local board members.

Efforts to provide such stay-at-home training, and other methods of offering convenient training experiences, should be encouraged; where they are available, they eliminate one critical argument against the adoption of state legislation mandating training.

Reply from Boyd Maher:

Good points, Professor. But I would submit that face-to-face training and the opportunity to interact with commissioners from other communities presents a superior environment for adult learning.

In Arkansas, we have used private funding to greatly defray the cost of regional training workshops for preservation commissions. We have found that preservation-oriented architects, developers, and contractors are often willing to sponsor a training seminar at the $100-$500 level. (For their support, we include them on promotional materials for the event and let them put a brochure in each commissioner's training manual.) The local historical society will often spring for a modest reception. Then we at the state preservation office provide a small grant fund to help with commissioners' travel expenses (typically one night at government rate, mileage, and three meals).

By using these and other cost-sharing tactics, we've put together a series of quarterly and annual training sessions that our constituents love and can attend for a nominal cost. What we're doing now is working so well!

Thanks for the reply!