Government

Land-use professionals necessary to planning commissions

061124001 Chico BuildingI’ve previously written about the selection of new Planning Commissioners in Petaluma.  First about a frequent but incorrect assumption regarding pro-growth versus anti-growth and then about how conflict of interest standards affect the applicant pool.  I have one more observation to share.

During the June selection of four new commissioners, an acquaintance spoke with someone in the city about the pool of applicants.  My acquaintance expressed concern that there were too few land-use professionals, such as architects, engineers, landscape architects, and land planners, among the applicants.

The city figure told my acquaintance that the professional skills of Planning Commissioners weren’t important.  He stated that developers are motivated to have projects approved as quickly as possible and therefore begin the process by submitting their best proposal.

One assumes that his logic was that, with the best development concept already on the table, there was little opportunity for a Planning Commission to add value, making the skills of the Planning Commissioners irrelevant.

Which gives us two assertions to consider, that developers begin with their best proposals and that Planning Commissions don’t need land-use professionals.  Let’s look at the two separately.

For much of my professional career, I’ve worked closely with developers.  I have respect for many and some remain friends.  From that history, I know that developers, no matter how motivated they may be to secure expeditious approvals, rarely put forth their best proposal to begin the entitlement process.  Indeed, I find it laughable that someone might suggest that they do.

There are at least two reasons why developers don’t start with their best proposal.  For many projects, they’re trying to optimize project finances.  Also, they frequently don’t know what a city would consider the best project.

Looking more deeply into a typical entitlement process, these are key factors:

++ Although many developers truly try to do the right thing for a community, all are eventually driven by their bottom lines.  Voluntarily adding project elements, especially those that don’t affect marketability, would reduce access to financing and may eventually push the developer out of business.

If the developer knew exactly what a city would eventually demand, it might make sense for them to jump ahead to the finish line, but that level of prescience is rare.

++ If it became known that a city, as represented by its Planning Commission, was assuming that the first submittal was the best and final offer, the quality of submittals would quickly decline.  A land entitlement process is a negotiation.  In any negotiation, the absence of assertiveness by one party will quickly cause the other party to offer less.  It’s human nature.

Imagine arriving at a poker game and advising the table that you intended neither to bluff nor to assume that anyone else would be bluffing.  I would hope that you enjoy the company of the other card players because you’ll be paying to spend the evening with them.

++ A developer can’t read the mind of a community.  In any set of land development rules, such as general plans, zoning codes, specific plans, etc., there are interpretations to be made and balances to be judged between competing objectives.  Even the best -intentioned developer may not intuit the design decisions that will best meet the city’s wishes.

An important role of a planning commission, and of other participants such as city planners, is to inform the developer of community preferences and to push the development team to modify the site design to maximize community benefits even if the changes sometimes make the project less profitable.

If an entitlement process doesn’t begin with the developer’s best offer, what does that mean regarding the role of land-use professionals on bodies such as planning commissions?

In my years as a practicing engineer, I’ve participated in hundreds of meetings with Planning Commissions, City Councils, planning staffs, and other regulators.  In those meetings, I’ve heard thousands of questions asked and suggestions offered.

The great majority of those questions were requests for clarifications or the identification of development options of which the development team was already aware but had chosen not to pursue for defensible reasons.

But ten percent of the questions were the reason that Planning Commissions exist.  They were the questions that conveyed information about the deep-seated desires of the community that couldn’t have been gleaned from the city documents.  They were the questions that triggered adjustments which better integrated the project with the community.

It was land-use professionals who most often asked those key questions, because a design background is often required to understand that tradeoffs in land use and to recognize opportunities to improve the project.

So yes, it’s important to have qualified land-development professionals on a planning commission.  They needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be the entire commission.  A well-constructed planning commission should have citizens from many walks of life, as long as all are familiar with the governing documents and the processes of land development.  But land-development professionals offer insights and experiences that are often crucial to the function of a planning commission.

And anyone who suggests differently is deluded.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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