What’s in a planning commission’s annual report?
The annual report is a requirement of all local government planning commissions and is an opportunity to provide the community and elected officials with a review of planning commission activities and achievements.
The Michigan Planning Enabling Act (MPEA) (MCL 125.3801 et seq.) states that “A planning commission shall make an annual written report to the legislative body concerning its operations and the status of planning activities, including recommendations regarding actions by the legislative body related to planning and development” (MCL 125.3819(2)). This was a new requirement for cities, villages, and counties when the MPEA was adopted in 2008, but has always been required of township planning commissions.
So, what should be in an annual report? This article will describe the required elements of a planning commission annual report as well as some optional information to include to document a well-functioning planning and zoning program. The MPEA requires planning commissions to report annually on the operations of the commission, status of planning activities, and recommendations to the legislative body related to planning and development. Planning commissions may also consider reporting on the operations of the zoning administrator and zoning board of appeals, attendance, professional development of members and staff, and fiscal needs for the next year.
Required by MPEA
Operations of the commission
This section highlights the work done by the planning commission throughout the previous year. Provide the number of:
- Special-use permits granted or recommended
- Planned unit developments granted or recommended
- Zoning amendments granted or recommended
- Site plans reviewed or approved
- Subdivisions/site condos reviewed or approved
Also, consider including the number of plans the planning commission reviewed from neighboring units of government as allowed for by the MPEA (MCL 125.3841(3)). A summary of the past year’s ordinance amendments is also helpful for the legislative body to recall the issues that arose and the solutions offered. Remember the responsibility to review local infrastructure and capital expenditures? (MCL 125.3861) These reviews constitute operations of the commission, too. (see Michigan State University Extension news article “Planning commissions’ reviews ensure consistency”) For a county, a report on operations should include the number of municipal plans and township zoning ordinances reviewed. For a township and county, Farmland Development Rights Agreements (commonly known as PA 116 agreements) reviewed in the past year may be of interest to the legislative body, too.
Status of planning activities
At least once every five years, the planning commission must review the master plan per the MPEA. However, chances are good that the planning commission is involved in planning activities more often than that. If the planning commission is preparing a sub-area plan, studying a transportation corridor, or engaging in a regional planning initiative, summaries of those activities should be included in the annual report. If the planning commission annually prepares the Capital Improvement Program, a brief review of the process is appropriate. Further, the planning commission might have active advisory committees (MCL 125.3817(2)) studying specific land use issues in the community and summaries of those activities and/or findings are warranted in the annual report.
Recommendations to the legislative body related to planning and development
Based on the planning commission’s regular use and application of the master plan and zoning ordinance (e.g. plan interpretation, special use permit applications or rezoning requests) there may be sections of the master plan or zoning ordinance that should be amended. The annual report should include recommendations for these kinds of updates, in addition to recommendations on the need for sub-area plans, a different approach to zoning (e.g. form-based), joint meetings with neighboring governments, etc.
Beyond the minimum required by statute, there is additional information associated with the local planning and zoning program that should also be included in the planning commission annual report.
Operations of the zoning administrator
The planning commission works in tandem with the zoning administrator to operate a local government’s planning and zoning program. To give an overview of the zoning administrator’s work, the annual report should include the number of zoning permits, site plan reviews, and other activities done by the zoning administrator in the day-to-day operation of the zoning ordinance, including violations and enforcement activities. The report might also include a summary of land division reviews (ideally performed in conjunction with the local assessor).
Operations of the zoning board of appeals
Similarly, include information on the operations of the zoning board of appeals, such as the number of administrative appeals, interpretation cases, nonconformities, non-use variances, and use variances (if applicable) considered and approved or denied. This annual review can be an opportunity to see if there are trends in circumstances necessitating a variance request. If a number of similar variances are being applied for and granted, it may be a signal for the planning commission to review the regulation in the next year.
Since it’s the legislative body (for townships and counties) or mayor or president (for cities and villages) who appoints planning commissioners to their roles, it is only appropriate that elected officials know the attendance record of their appointees. If an individual’s attendance is weak and their term is expiring soon, the attendance record is helpful for elected officials to make an informed decision about (re)appointing a member who will be present to do their job. It is recommended that attendance requirements be placed in the planning commission bylaws. Then, if attendance is not met, the planning commissioner can be appropriately removed for nonfeasance.
Training or professional development of members/staff
Perhaps members of the planning commission have participated in training offered by the Michigan Township Association, Michigan Municipal League, Michigan Association of Counties, Michigan Association of Planning, Michigan State University Extension, or other organization and they may have even earned certification through the MSU Extension Citizen Planner Program. Such achievements are noteworthy and advance the knowledge and effectiveness of individual members and the planning commission as a whole (see MSU Extension news article “The importance of discussing best practices for continuing education in planning and zoning.”)
Fiscal needs for next year
Perhaps the most practical purpose of the annual report is to provide the justification for next year’s budget request. If the planning commission sufficiently documents accountability in the annual report, next year’s budget is a fairly straightforward request. The annual report might include details on ongoing initiatives that will require funding into the future, such as a multi-year process to update a Master Plan. Being an annual report, however, the specifics for next year’s activities and initiatives should be more appropriately detailed in an accompanying annual work program.
The planning commission does not exist in a vacuum. Activities of other entities within the community planning and zoning program, including the zoning board of appeals and staff, should be included in the annual report to ensure a well-rounded presentation to the legislative body. On the other hand, it is not necessary to compile an exhaustive document that loses the interest of the legislative body. The important point is to use the opportunity of the annual report to provide elected officials and the public an overview of planning commission operations and a justification for future initiatives. In the era of government accountability, think of the annual report as the planning commission dashboard. Below are some example annual reports from various types of local governments in Michigan.