Ten traits of a successful county planning commission

As planning commissions form to make changes in their counties, consider adopting these characteristics for greater success.

Over the past three years, planning commissions around the state have been taking steps to update the paperwork which created the planning commission in the first place. This has been done to bring the current planning commission into compliance with the 2008 Michigan Planning Enabling Act (MPEA). (See "Planning & Zoning News," February 2011, p. 19.)

During the past decade with Michigan State University (MSU) Extension, I have had the pleasure of working with many counties in Michigan in discussions about county planning, its purpose and role. In the past three years, discussions in some counties have also focused on if a county board wants to have a county planning commission or not. These discussions began because of a poor economy and the need to update a planning commission with MPEA.

Some have decided to disband the county planning commission, others have not. There are two observations I will share which are the characteristics or traits of a county planning commission that is valued, effective and has not faced the question about its continuing to exist.

First, the county planning commission and department has re-purposed itself to be a leader and coach for the county and municipalities to prepare for the new/global economy (See several articles in "Planning & Zoning News," but in particular: November 2010, December 2010.) County planning commissions/departments that did not reorient their focus along the lines of preparation for new economy also tended to be those counties that disbanded their county planning commission.

Second, effective county planning commissions are those who have traditionally exhibited the following traits. You might think of these as Kurt’s “top ten” attributes for the most effective and successful county planning commissions, regardless if they have county zoning or not. I am not aware of any county that has successfully done all ten of these, but my anecdotal observation is when more of these traits exist, more success and value is generally placed on county planning. My observations are mainly of county planning commissions, but suspect the same will hold true for municipal (village, city, township) planning commissions as well.

Kurt’s “top ten:”

1. Membership The commission’s membership is truly representative of formal organizations that are centered on the “important interests” as they exist in the county. That is to say, for example:

  • the important interest “farming” is represented by an officer or employee of the county farm bureau
  • the important interest “economic development” is represented by an officer or executive director of EDC, Chamber, or similar
  • the important interest “tourism” is represented by an officer or employee of the county tourism and convention bureau
  • the important interest “environment” is represented by an officer or similar of a county-based environmental organization
  • the important interest “transportation” is represented by a member of or administrator of the county road commission, bus system or similar
  • the important interest “local government” is represented by an officer of the county townships association and/or city/village manager’s association

Membership also includes a member of the county board, and at large citizen(s). As a result, those sitting around the table at a planning commission meeting have influence and the ability to harness resources (people, time, expertise from various organizations, etc.) to bring together a collation around an issue or project.

2. Detailed Research The county planning commission has a very detailed and definitive “fact book” or “data book” about the county, which is the information source for everything about the county (in regards to the geography of the county). That becomes the source for grant writing, for the facts for public policy decisions, etc. – not just for use by the county but also by each municipality in the county.

3. True Inclusive Planning Process The county plan is developed from a very inclusive bottom-up process. The county planning commission views itself as a facilitator to the planning process, not the author of the county plan. The plan is literally written by stakeholders in the county (interest groups, each municipality, etc.) with a rubber-stamp approval of whatever they wrote as the adopted county master plan. The purpose is to create a plan that a large number of people believe they have an investment in, a direct say in the content of, and thus ownership in the plan. This results in municipalities trying to follow the plan because they want to and other organizations adopting projects to implement the plan.

4. Model Documents The county planning commission regularly (more than one time a year) takes pro-active steps to develop and share sample or model documents (such as a zoning amendment) to address particular issues (such as wind energy ordinance sample, medical marijuana, groundwater protection or new economy-friendly changes to local zoning).

5. Convener The county planning commission recognizes and sees when more than one municipality is grappling with a common issue. Next, the commission uses geographic information system resources to define the geographic boundary of that issue (a watershed, economic labor market area, commercial corridor). The commission then uses that boundary to identify the municipalities involved and hosts a convening of the affected municipal planning commissions to come together to resolve the issue. The commission also brings expertise and specialists to that meeting to provide technical assistance in that area (state planning and development region staff, MSUE, county officials, university resources, public health, state and federal agency expertise and so on).

6. Leadership The county planning commission sets county-wide priorities (which may also come from the county board), and takes steps to do each of the items in #3 “True Inclusive Planning Process” and #5 “Convener,” above, that focus on those priorities. (Maybe just one priority per year, or per two years is worked on.) At this time, that one or two projects may be strategic preparation for the global or new economy. The main priority would be the subject of a county-wide summit (including county board, county department heads, staff/managers and elected and planning officials from each local unit of government), to set the case for, provide education about and facilitate the audience toward future action steps on the issue.

7. Technical Assistance The county planning commission provides planning staff technical assistance to local governments in the county (preparing local plans, zoning amendments, etc.). This “back door” approach (with the fact book [#2] above, and providing technical assistance), influence from the county becomes very powerful – in-as-much as information is power, and providing technical assistance for that information becomes the purview of the county. In doing so, the technical assistance makes use of the sample/models the county developed, uses the county fact book and county plan, so those local ordinances and plans becomes very similar. This tactic has been among the most effective means of influencing and coordinating planning and zoning in a county. 

This is easy to do with county planning staff, or development director, etc. I have also seen it done with the county contracting for the service to regional planning or a planning consultant. Local governments that use the service, pay for the service –not the county. The county just has a retainer with regional planning or consultant, with the agreement the county’s data, materials, and priorities will be put to the forefront.

8. Hosts Networking The county planning commission organizes and hosts regular (monthly or quarterly) meetings of professional planning staff employed by governments in the county and zoning administrators. This can be as simple as a brown-bag lunch. This group of people will have plenty to talk about, sharing their “war stories.” They will also have a pulse on what issues are coming, or are “hot” in the county and what future education or information needs are emerging. This gets shared back to the planning commission that uses the information to further implement items #4 Model documents, #5 Convener, #7 Technical Assistance, #9 Education; helps set county wide priorities (#6 Leadership); and identifies needed updates or additions to the fact book (#2 Detailed Research) that ultimately may become an amendment to the county plan (#3 True Inclusive Planning Process).

9. Education The county planning commission works with its planning region, Michigan Association of Planning, Michigan State University Extension, Michigan Township Association, and Michigan Municipal League to bring planning and zoning education sessions to the county, two to three times a year.

10. New/Global Economy The county planning commission and county board understands that in today’s world job creation and economic development is a multi-pronged effort. For a county the two prongs are (1) traditional economic development with tax incentives, industrial parks, business retention activities that is done by an economic development organization, and (2) efforts to attract and keep skilled, talented and entrepreneurial people through population attraction strategies, placemaking and asset inventories – all of which become the unique quality of life for the region/county. This is best done through a coordinated county or multi-county planning and zoning effort.


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