Public Planning Councils: My half-baked idea

Downtown Marietta, Ohio

Downtown Marietta, Ohio

Over the course of many public land-use hearings, I’ve often heard participants ask why decisions aren’t made on the New England town meeting model, which they understand to be a town-wide gathering to debate a proposal and to render a consensus decision.

I have a number of problems with the suggestion.  I’ll start with the fact that speaker is often unfamiliar with the land-use process, including the knowledge that the town hall model is rarely if ever applied to land-use decisions.  Instead, town meetings usually focus on public policy and finance issues.

Also, the town meeting proponent is usually someone who has never before attended a land-use hearing, likely will never again, and is only attending this hearing because it affects his neighborhood.  As it’s often the case that most of the other attendees on the particular night are also from his neighborhood and are also opposed to the project, the town meeting proponent is effectively suggesting that any neighborhood should have the unilateral right to quash any project.  And that result would be a model for aggressive sprawl because only projects without neighbors could be assured of approval.

Lastly, giving neighborhoods effective veto power over new projects, a power that would sometimes be used because of fear of the type of people who would reside in the new projects, could quickly degrade into discrimination.

Nonetheless, I remain intrigued by the concept of broader public input into land use decisions.  In recent weeks, I’ve noted that there’s much potential value in the ideas generated at the interface between the forces of order, represented by city staff and zoning codes, and the forces of anarchy, represented by public input.  But I also argued that Kristina Ford, in her book “The Trouble with City Planning”, gave too much value to under-informed public opinion.

So I’ll throw out an idea here.  Admittedly, I don’t consider the idea workable, but I like several elements of what it would accomplish.  I offer it here in hopes that readers will be motivated to give the concept further thought, perhaps resulting in a more workable alternative.

I propose that a traditional Planning Commissions be gradually replaced by more inclusive bodies that I’ll call Public Planning Councils.

(Before anyone assumes that I’m proposing a crusade against Planning Commissioners, let me be clear.  This idea isn’t motivated by dissatisfaction with any Planning Commissioners, either individually or collectively.  Planning Commissioners are some of my best friends and I have respect for both their character and their diligence.  I offer this idea only because I think we can do better than the traditional Planning Commission model.)

As I envision it, a Public Planning Council would have an indeterminate number of members.  Any resident of the community of at least 18 years of age would be eligible to become a Public Planning Councilor.

The primary requirement for being a Public Planning Councilor would be having attended fifteen of the most recent twenty Public Planning Council meetings, with attendance defined as being present for the entire length of the meeting or three hours, whichever is less.  (Yes, attendance would be taken.)

Also, Public Planning Councilors must attend at least four outside planning events during a year.  These events could be land use conferences, Saturday training sessions on the land use process, planning commission meetings in other communities, or even book club gatherings about land use tomes.

And that’s it.  Anyone who meets those standards would be a Public Planning Councilor.

For those concerned about an abrupt change in the regulatory process, it should be noted that on the day that a Public Planning Council replaced a Planning Commission, it’d be likely that the only Councilors would be the current Planning Commissioners, assuming they’d met the standard for outside education.  The transition to a Council with more members would be a gradual progression as more citizens achieved the qualifications.

In my community of Petaluma, I’m sure no one other than the current Planning Commissioners would qualify today.  Having been the only member of the public to sit through an entire Commission meeting a few days ago, and knowing that I’d personally fall short of the fifteen meeting standard, I can make that assertion with confidence.

So, what would be the advantages of a Public Planning Council over a Planning Commission?  I find three primary points.  First, the Council would be self-selected from folks willing to put in hard work to learn to do the job well.

Second, because the Councilors wouldn’t need to curry favor among an elected City Council for appointment, they’d be more likely to be at the leading edge of land-use thinking, which is my urbanist angle.

Third, if a Council becomes much greater in number than a current Commission, there might be more opportunities to increase public input into the land-use process.  An example might be subcommittees from a Council who would receive periodic briefings from city staff early in the application process for major projects.  (At present, Planning Commissions only review projects after what could have been months or years of interaction between developers and planning staffs.)

But against those advantages are some towering disadvantages.

For cities that are fighting to stay solvent, the administrative costs of managing the eligibility of an expanded body and of supporting the additional public processes would be unacceptable.  This is the single point on which the idea founders.

Also, there could also be a concern about a developer stacking a Council by having a number of “friends” qualify for Council participation in advance of a major submittal by the developer.  However, the costs of having a handful of people attend fifteen meetings and another four outside events would be significant.  Plus, there would be the chance that some of the folks, with the greater exposure to planning thought, would become less supportive of the developer’s plans.

Lastly, there is a chance of a Council growing large enough to become unwieldy.  Admittedly, this would be a good problem to have, but a solution would be required regardless.  Breaking down the Councils to serve different districts of a city could be a partial solution.

Ultimately, the administrative costs would seem to be the primary obstacle.  And, as I acknowledged at the top, I never expected the idea to be workable.  But I think there is some value in the concept and leave it to my readers to identify tweaks that may make the concept more achievable.

I’m sure there are readers out there who are smarter and more creative than me.  I’d like to hear from them.

In my next post, I’ll write for the first time about parklets, a quirky but potential-filled corner of urbanism.  A parklet concept is currently being floated in Petaluma.  Because of possible conflicts, I wouldn’t talk about the specific proposal, but will offer background theory and reading on parklets, hopefully facilitating a good discussion about the concept.

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

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

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