How planning commissions are appointed can have an impact on success

Communities struggle with finding local volunteers for commissions. Empowering appointed officials, broadening their duties and formal representation can help.

City planner Jerry Adams addressing the Cadillac City Planning Commission. Adams retired May 2015. Photo credit: Kurt Schindler l MSU Extension
City planner Jerry Adams addressing the Cadillac City Planning Commission. Adams retired May 2015. Photo credit: Kurt Schindler l MSU Extension

Many local governments have a difficult time finding people to serve on local boards and commissions. Finding people to serve might be easier when the planning commission focuses on more than just zoning, and there is a process to identify and recruit members that cross-represent important segments of a community.

For more about focusing on more than just zoning see this article from Michigan State University Extension.

This article will focus on representing the important segments of a community on a planning commission. The Michigan Planning Enabling Act (MPEA) has certain requirements for a planning commission membership. Those requirements are often expressed as a range, or a choice that the local government makes when creating, or organizing, its planning commission. A planning commission is created by the elected body of the local government (township board, village council, city council, county board) through the adoption of a planning commission ordinance. That ordinance should not simply reiterate what the MPEA says. The local ordinance should narrow those choices down to what is felt to be specifically best for one’s community.

For example, the MPEA says the total members on a planning commission can be five, seven or nine members. A county planning commission can be five, seven, nine or eleven members (MCL 125.3815(2)). The ordinance creating the planning commission should be specific, for example stating it shall be seven members.

The MPEA provides choices and flexibility for local government when setting up a planning commission. The local ordinance which creates a planning commission should identify the specifics: a fixed number of members, ex officio members, if there are liaisons, if there are, or are not, non-resident members, and more. The goal is to strive for continuity and stability. Likewise, the statute indicates membership is to be representative of the identified important segments of the community.

The MPEA also says membership “shall be representative of the important segments of the community such as . . . .” (MCL 125.3815(3)). The act then goes on to list examples of “important segments.” Again, the local planning commission ordinance should not simply reiterate what the MPEA says. The local ordinance should narrow those choices and state the specific “important segments” for one’s own community. Best practice should identify “important local segment(s)” to a specific seat on the planning commission.

Often when this is done well, the planning commission can be a very dynamic commission, with each member having a stronger sense of purpose. That excitement and purpose can make it easier to find people willing to serve on the local commission.

When preparing the ordinance that creates a local planning commission (or updating the existing ordinance), one of the first steps is for the elected body to discuss “important segments of the community economic, governmental, educational and social development of the local unit of government, in accordance with the major interests as they exist in the local unit of Government.” The task is to create a list that might include:

  • agriculture
  • natural resources
  • recreation
  • education
  • public health
  • government
  • transportation
  • industry
  • commerce

An urban community may decide “agriculture” does not belong on its list. Or a rural township may decide “industry” does not belong on its list. A local government may have another “important segment,” not listed above, that should be on its list. A common addition I have often seen is representation of property owner groups. Others do not, pointing out everyone on the planning commission likely owns real property or rents from a real property owner.

When the list has been created, one then has an idea how many members should be on the local planning commission. For example, if the final list has seven items, then membership could be specified as seven. Sometimes, the final list results in an even number (not a membership option in the MPEA). In those cases, a community might combine two “important segments” together. For example: recreation and natural resources.

The result is each “important segment” is assigned to a seat for a member on the planning commission. Next, in larger population communities, the elected body then identifies local groups and organizations that work in or services service those “important segments.” The result of this task might look like this:

Seat number


Local groups and organizations that work in or service those “important segments.”

Member term expiration date (three year terms, staggered)



Visitor and Convention Bureaus

Other tourist promotion organization


November 30, 2015 at 9 a.m.


Business and Economic Development

non-profit organizations to promote business, commerce and industry in the county:

economic development corporation,

chambers of commerce,

better business bureaus

November 30, 2015 at 9 a.m.



County Conservation District Board,

County Chapter of Farm Bureau

November 30, 2016 at 9 a.m.



environmental organizations:

Michigan United Conservation Clubs affiliate,

Michigan Audubon affiliate,

lake associations,

soil conservation district,

river or watershed associations

November 30, 2016 at 9 a.m.



member of a public school board or an administrative employee of a school district:

school district board(s) of education included, in whole or in part, within the community's boundaries

November 30, 2017 at 9 a.m.


Human Services

Human Services Collaborative Body

November 30, 2017 at 9 a.m.


Elected Body (ex officio)

The elected body, selecting one of their own members.

Concurrent with term on the Elected Body

The planning commission is appointed to specifically have each member representing those “important segments.” One can go further and ask those local groups and organizations for whom they would nominate as a member to the planning commission.

Consider the dynamic this can have for a planning commission. The organizations identified for the “important segments” have their representatives sitting around the table. Collaboration, communication, opportunity to identify projects to work together on, buy-in, and much more has a better chance to occur. This approach has been especially effective for a county planning commission without county zoning.

For more on preparation of the ordinance creating the planning commission see Land Use Series: “Sample #1B; Ordinance to create a planning commission” and “Sample #1O: Joint Planning Commission Agreement/Ordinance “ (found at:

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