Planning commissions and zoning board of appeals required to have three year staggered terms

Michigan statute requires three-year staggered terms of office. But many communities have gotten off that pattern. It is a problem that needs correcting.

Planning commissions and zoning board of appeals in Michigan are required to have members with three year staggered terms of office, among other requirements. Many joint planning commissions are also set up with staggered terms of office. But over time, it is often observed that the staggering gets messed up or is not adhered to.

Staggered terms of office means that only some of the members come up for appointment or reappointment in any given year. The Michigan Planning Enabling Act requires three-year staggered terms for planning commissions. The Michigan Zoning Enabling Act requires three-year staggered terms for zoning board of appeals. The Joint Municipal Planning Act provides more flexibility as to how membership of a planning commission is set up.

If there were not staggered terms, then all members’ terms would expire en-masse – all at the same time.

The exception to the staggered terms are the ex officio members. Those individuals hold their office on the planning commission or zoning board of appeals for the same time-span as their term on the legislative body (for a planning commission or an appeals board member) or their term on the planning commission (for an appeals board member).

So, a typical membership roster for a five-member planning commission or appeals board would look something like this:

  • First member (Ex officio from the legislative body or planning commission): November 20, 2016, to November 19, 2020. Then, November 20, 2020, to November 19, 2024, and so on.
  • Second member: First time to create staggering, January 1, 2017, to December 31, 2017. Then, January 1, 2018, to December 31, 2021, and so on.
  • Third member: First time to create staggering, January 1, 2017, to December 31, 2018. Then, January 1, 2019, to December 31, 2022, and so on.
  • Fourth member: January 1, 2017, to December 31, 2019. Then, January 1, 2020, to December 31, 2023, and so on.
  • Fifth member: January 1, 2017, to December 31, 2019. Then, January 1, 2020, to December 31, 2023, and so on.

Thus in 2017, only the second member comes up for reappointment or replacement (before January 2008). In 2018, only the third member comes up for reappointment or replacement (before January 2019). In 2019, the fourth and fifth members come up for reappointment or replacement (before January 2020).

In 2020, the first (ex officio) member comes up for reappointment or replacement (before November 2020), and the second member comes up for reappointment or replacement (before January 2021).

But what happens when someone leaves office before their term of office is over? That person’s replacement is supposed to be appointed for the remainder of the term. For example, if the third member moves away and leaves office in July 2020 then there is a vacancy. When someone else is appointed to fill the vacancy that person is appointed to finish the term of office: July 2020 to December 31, 2022. The ending date for the third member’s seat does not change.

The person appointed to fill the vacancy is not appointed for three years (July 2020 to July 2023). But that is the type of error often seen with appointments to planning commissions and appeals boards. Over time with this type of error occurring again and again, the staggering is not evenly divided as close to one third of the membership, as required by statute. This can create long term confusion, further missing needed reappointments or replacements, and opens the door for someone to challenge the legitimacy of the planning commission or appeals board.

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Staggered terms | Photo by: Kurt Schindler

Someone needs to have the job to keep track of the staggered terms of office for each seat on the commission or board. In addition to the terms, one also needs to keep track of the individual people that are appointed to each seat. Often, that is the elected clerk. But it might be staff in the planning department or the secretary for the planning commission and secretary for the appeals board.

If your planning commission or appeals board has moved off the staggered, as close to as possible evenly divided, three year terms, it should be fixed. Do the search of past records to figure out what happened. Once that is known, the situation may have an easy way to be fixed. If not, then it would be wise to bring the issue to the attention of your government’s attorney that is experienced in municipal (planning and zoning) law.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide 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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