Consider government planning at two levels: internal plans and plans for the entire community

Any government body should be able to write a plan for its activities. Why should government have to have a planning commission to do so?

Anybody can make plans, so why do we have to have a planning commission to plan for our local government activities? More than once Michigan State University Extension educators in land use hear questions like this. And the initial point is correct – anyone or any government can engage in planning for itself.

However, when it is government doing the planning, and depending on what is being planned or what the topics of the plans are, the requirement is that plans be done in conformance with the Michigan Planning Enabling Act (MPEA). The MPEA requires, among many other things, that a planning commission conduct planning.

So, when can government make plans that do not need to follow the MPEA, and when must procedures of adoption and contents of plans follow the MPEA? There is not a clear line which distinguishes the difference, so there will be grey areas. When in those areas of grey the prudent government will err on the side of doing the plan under the requirements of the MPEA. This is because the stakes are high, and the consequences can be very costly. Issues which can create trouble revolve around citizens’ various constitutional rights and protections.

The answer as to whether to follow the MPEA or not when planning comes down to what the plan is about. Planning without following the MPEA and without a planning commission maybe can be done if:

  • The plan is 100 percent about what is owned by the local government (land, buildings) and does not include anyone else’s property.
  • The plan is 100 percent about the activity of the local government and does not include activity, operations, decisions of any entity or organization that is not under the direct control of whom is doing the planning.
  • The plan is not part or the local government’s entire capital improvement program (CIP), since that is specifically covered in the MPEA.

This is because governments can create plans which may cover topics and things which have an impact on private property and activities, and other government’s property and activities. When government’s reach is into those areas, that is when the MPEA must be followed. The MPEA includes many processes, notice requirements, hearings and more – all designed to make sure due process, private property rights and public participation are done. These things are in place as safeguards for people and other entities which may be subject to government’s planning.

For example, if a local government elected body wishes to do some strategic planning about how it wants to fix up and remodel its town hall, that project can be done by the elected body because the topic is “internal.” In this case, the local government does not need to follow the MPEA and having a planning commission. But if that plan includes adopting a new zoning regulation that restricts construction on neighboring land because the government may want to expand into that area – the plan now includes discussion about someone else’s property. So now the strategic plan must be adopted using the MPEA and be done by a planning commission. If the strategic plan includes a goal to purchase adjacent property for expanding the hall, that would be a grey area. Government purchase of land is done under various statutes which include process and protections of another’s property rights, but it also is now a plan that talks about more than just the government’s land and activities.

Probably one of the most significant “planning” activities governments do that is “internal” is adopting the annual budget. The budget, by its very definition, is only about things that that government has direct control over (except in some cases those entities receiving grants of funds, or money spent on contracted services). The budget is a planning document – setting priorities, making decisions about how many are hired, what they are paid, what departments exist, at what level of funding and so on.

So yes, government elected bodies, departments, appointed boards and commissions can make internal plans. It is when those plans go into areas of others’ property, activity and CIP that the plan must be done by a planning commission in conformance with the MPEA.

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