Choose planning professionals who have AICP credentials

Not all planning professionals are equal. A very good way to select higher quality is to insist on AICP credentials when selecting a planning consultant or hiring an employee.

When hiring a professional planner, or when selecting a planning consultant it is always wise to insist the person have AICP certification.

AICP stands for American Institute of Certified Planners. This certification requires a rigorous process to obtain: passing an exam, documented job-experience, adherence of a code of ethics, and constant continuing education. While there is no guarantee an AICP planner will perform better it does increase the odds one is selecting a better employee or consultant candidate.

To illustrate this point here is a story of a fictional Michigan village. While the story is fiction, each event is a compilation of things that I have seen happen during my 20 years with Michigan State University Extension. For this story, the village hired a planning consultant that did not have AICP and was not working under the supervision or direction of an AICP planner. But the village was saving money paying far less for planning services than other planning firms would have charged.

The planner walked the community through a process of updating their master plan.  Some years later, when in court, the village learned that their plan did not meet the minimum statutory requirements for content. When the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (MZEA) was adopted in 2006, the Michigan Planning Enabling Act (MPEA) was adopted in 2008, and the MPEA was amended in 2010 it clarified and added required content for master plans.  But the village’s planner did not stay current and did not know of these new requirements. The village was faced with the task, and cost, of updating or re-adopting a revised plan all over again.

Remember zoning has to be based on a plan. That plan is the master plan adopted pursuant to MPEA. If the master plan does not qualify as a master plan under the act that is likely to place the entire zoning ordinance in jeopardy. 

The village also proceeded to amend their zoning ordinance to implement their deficient master plan.  The planning consultant wrote the amendments. To save even more money the village skipped review of the zoning amendments by an attorney. That is never a good idea. There are times when an attorney should always be consulted as this article explains.  Selecting an attorney that is experienced in municipal (planning and zoning law) is also important.  The result was there were serious zoning amendment drafting errors that were not caught. 

 A professional planner has a duty to make sure their initial drafts of a zoning ordinance or zoning amendment is not adopted without review by the municipality’s attorney.  A planner is being paid a fee for his or her services. One needs to make sure that payment is not what could be deemed “legal services.”  The danger is providing unauthorized practice of law. A Michigan Bar publication indicates unauthorized practice of law includes “Nonlawyers may not draft documents that require legal judgment for another person.” Generally a planner can prepare documents reflecting the public policy desires of a planning commission. Such documents may look and read similar to an early draft of an ordinance or amending ordinance.  But that planner has a duty to make sure the final versions are prepared by an attorney.

Those zoning amendments, without attorney review, were adopted by the village. When it came time to enforce those parts of the zoning ordinance the village found itself on the losing side every time it was in court.  In one case it was attempting to regulate something that was preempted from local control by the Right to Farm Act. In another case it was zoning regulation which was contrary to federal requirements for regulation of wireless communication towers. There were also constitutional violations in how the zoning ordinance was written.

For each of these, it was a failure of the planner having training in ordinance drafting skills, keeping up-to-date to know recent changes in planning law, and having skills as a professional planner. 

A planner also has the job to point out to a municipality when a court case, new statute, or advance in science requires amendments to a zoning ordinance. A planner that is not staying current will not know of these events, will not advise the village to put a priority on updating those issues. Not staying current put the village behind the eight-ball.  For example in the past few years the planner did not alert the village about:

Ethical issues also apply for a consulting planner.  Some were troubled the village’s planner had another client that became a developer of property in that village and the planner was working for both.  The AICP code of ethics includes “. . . avoid a conflict of interest or even the appearance of a conflict of interest in accepting assignments from clients or employers.”  The AICP code of ethics has a formal process for guidance, advice, and formal opinions when the ethical question is not clear. The Code also includes a formal adjudication of complaints of misconduct.  But when the person doing planning is not AICP the code of ethics, advice, and complaint mechanism does not apply. The village had no recourse other than terminating its contract with the consultant.

The village was penny wise but pound foolish.  The village saved pennies, hiring a low cost planner that did not have AICP. However, itt cost the village many pounds to re-do the master plan, adopt further zoning amendments to fix those errors, lost court cases and the cost of the bad press and failure to be able to enforce zoning, and completely missing various issues that needed immediate attention.

To qualify for AICP a person must:

  • Be a current member of the American Planning Association (APA). The Michigan chapter of APA is the Michigan Association of Planning (MAP).
  • Be engaged in professional planning, either currently or in the past, as defined by AICP.
  • Have completed a combination of education and corresponding years of professional planning experience. For example: two years on-the-job experience with an accredited masters degree in planning; three years on-the-job with bachelor’s accredited degree; or four years on-the-job with another post-graduate, graduate, or undergraduate degree.
  • Pass the AICP exam.

Upon passing the exam one starts to use the initials AICP after their name. To keep one’s AICP continuing requirements include adherence to an AICP code of ethics and participating in continuing education. This is done by attending 32 hours of training every two years. Of those 32 hours 1.5 hours must be on ethics and 1.5 hours must be on current planning law. The idea is for AICP planners to stay current in their profession and practice at a defined ethical standard. From the story of the fictional village, above, the requirement to stay current may be the most important and valuable for a community hiring a planner or planning consultant. One can verify AICP membership of an individual at the AICP website, but one must have an account and be logged in.

One might ask how does one get years of on-the-job experience to become AICP if one is not hired without AICP credentials?  A planner may work for and under the supervision of an AICP planner. If the planner is working as an employee of government (city, village, township, or county) that might also work. But only if the government has (1) its own ethics policies and (2) requires its planner to attend continuing education (workshops, training, conferences) that could also be a place to start. Early in my career I was fortunate to have such a public sector job.  I have always been thankful for that employer and that job experience. Some local governments will hire an experienced planner with the provision they receive AICP within two to four years of hire.

But when selecting a consultant – always require AICP, at a minimum for the planner in charge of the project. When using a consultant the local government does not have employer-employee supervision. A consultant is not subject to the government’s ethics policy or training requirements. So those aspects of AICP are even more important. A listing of consulting planners can be found at the MAP web site.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide assistance in the search for and hiring a professional planner, selecting a planning consultant using qualifications-based selection, and with various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county.  Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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