Are city and county planning commissions useful?

The answer to that question depends on who you ask.

Planning boards are used by most towns and counties to hear rezoning (and related) applications, then make a recommendation to the city council or county commission on the proposal.

They are, in effect, a citizen review board designed to be a buffer between the official government and the public. They were put in place, for the most part, when a government put zoning codes in place, or when growth pressures motivated towns to establish the boards.

But are they still necessary?

The City of Hoschton recently decided to abolish its planning commission as a way to streamline the zoning process in that town. 

On the other hand, the City of Commerce held a Saturday morning retreat with its planning commission last weekend to discuss making changes to its codes and to get the two groups focused on a consensus about how growth should be handled in the city in the coming years.

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Alex and I cover a lot of planning commissions across Jackson and other counties. We've often discussed the sometimes crazy things that get said at those meeting, often by members of the public who are confused and befuddled about the entire zoning process.

And that's one of the problems with planning boards — they make a complex process even more confusing for the general public.

One of the missions of a planning commissions is to create a forum for public input via hearings. But for some projects, that could mean up to four public hearings on the same project. Few private citizens want to go to four hearings to oppose a development — the process, in some cases, ends up dampening public input because it's so time-consuming.

The way that happens is this: Before a property can be rezoned, it has to conform to the county or city's future land use and character area maps. That means a developer may have to go before the commission for a map amendment, then the government for final approval of that amendment; then back to the planning board for a rezoning hearing before going back to the government for final action.

All of that can take months, sometimes over a year. Developers get tired of jumping through those hoops and the public is either confused about the complexity of the process, or loses interest.

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On the positive side, planning boards force developments, especially big projects, to slow down. The system allows multiple points for public feedback. Often, developers change their plans based on public and planning board responses.

All of that was good when most governments didn't have professional planning staffs. Nowadays, however, most governments — except for the smallest of towns — have planning staffs or professional planning consultants.

Most of the time, those staffs make a recommendation to the planning board and government on what action to take regarding a rezoning application. Often, those include a series of conditions that force developers to modify their plans to lessen the impact of the project.

In a sense, those professional staffs do the heavy lifting that used to be done by planning boards. One could argue that they've made planning boards duplicative and unnecessary.

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And then there's the issue of lawyers and legality. Increasingly, the zoning process is controlled by legal considerations. Much of that comes from a growing body of case law stemming from a variety of court decisions that have been made over the last decade or so.

Last week, the Jackson County Planning Commission removed a rezoning variance request from its agenda following a recommendation from the county attorney's office. During last weekend's discussion in Commerce, city manager James Wascher mentioned several times the increasing pressure from lawyers involved in city zoning requests.

The upshot of all that is this: The public may hate a rezoning and raise hell about it, but local governments also face being sued, and losing, if they turn it down. In those situations, public input is really counterproductive, putting pressure on governments to do something they legally may not be able to do.

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I suspect local governments have mixed feelings about their planning boards. Hoschton found its board unnecessary and abolished it.

But some other governments like their planning boards to be a political shield for them. If a board recommends denial of a controversial project, the government can hide behind that, saying that it will follow the recommendation of the planning board.

But if governments are always going to follow those recommendations, then why is the government itself necessary in the zoning process? Why not outsource the entire process?

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There is an argument to be made that planning boards act as a check-and-balance on both professional planning staffs and on governments themselves. They may not have any power, but they do triangulate the process, making it more difficult for developers to use political influence, or behind-the-scenes dealings to get projects rubber-stamped.

That doesn't appear to be a problem locally. As far as we can tell, our local planning agencies are above board and make recommendations based on professional standards, not insider deals.

But in the future, that could change. And the make-up of local governments could change such that developers control those councils and commissions. Having a planning board in place could help tamp down problems from those kind of situations in the future.

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Still, the planning process has become so complex that most people don't understand it. Streamlining the process to make it easier for average citizens to understand and engage with rezonings should be done.

What happens in the next few years in Hoschton could give us some clues about the long term. If the town's move to abolish its planning board and have all zoning issues come directly to the council works out, we may see other local towns do the same thing.

And really, in the not-too-distant-future, rezoning issues will be mostly decided by professional staffs and lawyers. The role of public input will be reduced as lawsuits begin to dictate how a government responds to controversial rezoning issues.

The courts, not planning commission meetings and public hearings, will rule the day.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreeet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike @mainstreetnews.com.

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