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Thread: Use of staff notes in development review

  1. #1

    Use of staff notes in development review

    Until last Friday, I thought it very common for planning staff to prepare comments for a development review committee (or similar board) prior to public hearings on development proposals. However, in attending a state-wide forum on planning and zoning issues, I was surprised to learn of pretty strong opposition to this practice by many planners, planning commission members, and development review board members. It seems, at least from the forum, that the greatest oppostion to this is that it "gives too much power to one person."

    My community isn't exceptionally large (approx. 16,000), but it is among the most populated in the state (VT). Our DRB meets twice a month, and our agenda generally consists of 15-20 items at each meeting. Meetings most often run past midnight. We have a full-time staff person tasked with development review. For quantitative items, staff assesses compliance. For items more qualitative, staff highlights the issues that the board should discuss and provides them with the standards for such review. Without staff work on these notes, we would be asking volunteers to invest probably 20-30 hours per week of their time in their own review of items. If such review is saved for the hearing, our meetings would not be done at midnight, but rather 6 am. Nevertheless, some towns were appalled by the idea of staff notes, considering them leading and all-too-powerful.

    So I'm curious, as to the practices in your community? Thoughts on the matter?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    staff reports and recommendations...always. that is the job of a public planner.

  3. #3
    Forums Administrator & Gallery Moderator NHPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mike gurnee
    staff reports and recommendations...always. that is the job of a public planner.
    My thoughts exactly.
    "Growth is inevitable and desirable, but destruction of community character is not. The question is not whether your part of the world is going to change. The question is how." -- Edward T. McMahon, The Conservation Fund

  4. #4
    Cyburbian nerudite's avatar
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    Ditto on the above two comments. We always provide an agenda report and recommendations.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Habanero's avatar
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    Ditto the above.
    When Jesus said "love your enemies", he probably didn't mean kill them.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian SGB's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cathy_VT
    It seems, at least from the forum, that the greatest oppostion to this is that it "gives too much power to one person."
    It's the job of the public sector planner. Those who view staff comments as powerful are merely upset that some review boards actually appreciate and use the comments provided.

    But, the bottom line is that staff comments are advisory. If you don't like the staff comments, you have the public hearing available for refuting them and convincing the board of your position(s).

    We send all staff comments on applications to the applicants and their agents at the same time the board receives them.
    All these years the people said he’s actin’ like a kid.
    He did not know he could not fly, so he did.
    - - Guy Clark, "The Cape"

  7. #7
    Cyburbian mallen's avatar
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    Staff reports are essential for effective input. You are right that without guidance, it is asking too much of citizens who are usually well-intentioned - but often untrained - dentists, florists, accountants and the like.

    Without staff analyses, planners would simply be paper pushers. Although I feel that way sometimes.

  8. #8
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    You will read my staff report and you will like it!

    I view the staff report as quite possibly the most important part of our job as public planners. It is not reasonable to expect a layperson volunteering for a planning commission to spend countless hours becoming an expert in all planning matters; that is what we are here for. My Commission reads the reports and follows them about 95% of the time. They appreciate the effort I put into them. They are especially useful to cover yourself legally and professionally if they make a bad decision or forget to make their findings on a variance for reasons to deny.

    I handle the quantitative/qualitative much the same way you do, but I will usually give recommendations on the subjective stuff as well in addition to the review standards.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  9. #9
    Staff Reports are a must here, and we give recommendations for approval or denial to the planning commission although they do not always follow the recommendations... that's OK they are JUST recommendations but they like that the professionals have reviewed the cases.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Staff notes? Absolutely! Planners have the expertise that the plan commission often lacks, and the knowledge of community expectations or standards. It is more than merely appropriate for them to provide a critical review. Most developers I have known have appreciated having the notes as well, as they can anticipate concerns and be prepared to address them at the meeting.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cardinal
    Staff notes? Absolutely! Planners have the expertise that the plan commission often lacks, and the knowledge of community expectations or standards. It is more than merely appropriate for them to provide a critical review. Most developers I have known have appreciated having the notes as well, as they can anticipate concerns and be prepared to address them at the meeting.
    Exactly. Writing a staff report does NOT give a planner power.

    At the end of the day, we make recommendations based upon YOUR established policy and based upon best practices. It is entirely up to the DRB to ignore our recommendations.......and face an "I told you so" down the road. If I had $1 for every I told you so I've accumulated (and made a point of reiterating in a puiblic forum), I'd be retired already.

    So I side with the vocal majority. You should insist on having staff reports.

  12. #12

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    Williston and Essex prepare extensive staff notes, and we here in Williston are working hard to convert our regulations into a checklist format that will greatly facilitate staff reports and the entire development review process. Outside of the Chittenden County 'burbs, however, you will find the attitude you just encountered.

    I have run into it in other rural areas, including the Ozarks and, occassionally, in the Rockies and MIdwest (especially areas with wood products or mining culture, i.e. places with low levels of literacy), but Vermont does seem to have its own twist on this, that is not quite the same. In other areas it is usually directly correlated with an opposition to planning in any form. Here, the folks do not oppose planning but have a tendency to think that they are just as smart as any professional. That is partly about living in a small world, and partly about the quality of planners they have seen. Many towns (I could give examples, but I won't) don't pay enough to hire professionals, so the "planner" is, at best, paraprofessional. Often it is a person who has a degree in something else and no training in planning at all, but who happened to be living there.

    Having been the first professional to work in a number of communities, I can tell you that people have to get used to it, and that it takes quite a bit of finesse to help them see how you can help them.

  13. #13
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    yes, i prepare them here and i am careful in my wording if i feel i have a quorum of board members that are a little sensitive to staff possibly having too much power -

    the buzz words include:

    the board may want to consider...
    please note your consistent policy has been...

    once you earn trust with a quorum of the board you can be a little more direct, but even then, always respect that it's their vote

    remind your board that it is one of the most important functions we do as planners because permitting is the final implementation of the comprehensive plan, though i have many days where it's a thorn in my side or it takes to many of my hours to perform

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    We prepare extensive staff reports for every project in our community, complete with exhibits. It doesn't give us any more power than anyone else; in fact, sometimes I've seen our reports, which the boards and the applicants receive at the same time, used against us at hearings...Our recommendation is just that: a recommendation. Here, anyway, all we can evaluate is the project's relation to the master plan, the zoning, and to a lesser extent, surrounding uses. It's up to the neighbhors and the applicants to bring in the financial and emotional side of the request. We provide the boards with one of three (or more) viewpoints, and they take the information they're given and make their decision accordingly. Providing them with our information prior to decision-making is our job, and it allows them to visit sites beforehand and formulate questions. Would you want decisions to be made by policymakers who have just been presented by the request?
    I don't dream. I plan.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by luckless pedestrian
    the buzz words include:

    the board may want to consider...
    please note your consistent policy has been...

    once you earn trust with a quorum of the board you can be a little more direct, but even then, always respect that it's their vote
    You hit it right on the head! Well put. Can I hire you?

  16. #16
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    hey chet

    Quote Originally posted by Chet
    You hit it right on the head! Well put. Can I hire you?
    thanks! but, why would i leave my sunny island for the lower east side?

    besides, the truth is, i get so burnt out with permitting, this usually happens when i'm trying to re-write the comp plan, which is right now! LOL

    but anyway, cathy, you're doing what's right - tell those wonderful little towns in vermont (and i do love vermont, especially the kingdom) to get with the rest of the world or else they'll end up looking like stowe.....uh, you don't work in stowe do you?

  17. #17
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    I have considered, and probably will here, placing a sort of disclaimer in our reports: The staff recommends, based on the information submitted...The planning commission recommends, based on information presented at the public hearing...The governing body makes the final decision.

    Some novice applicants do think the recommendations are final.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian donk's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mike gurnee
    I have considered, and probably will here, placing a sort of disclaimer in our reports: The staff recommends, based on the information submitted...The planning commission recommends, based on information presented at the public hearing...The governing body makes the final decision.

    Some novice applicants do think the recommendations are final.
    How I have phrased this in the past (from my best recollection)

    "Having reviewed the submitted application for conformity to the relevant By-laws, City and provincial policies, Staff is able to provide Council/Commission/Committee the following recommendations:

    a)
    b)
    c)

    The suggested motion to accept these recommendations is:

    Having considered the recommendations presented in the staff report, as presented, and items presented and discussed at the hearing/meeting Council/the committee/commission accepts with the recommendations and approves the application subject to the conditions suggested in the report as maybe amended by council/committee/commission at the time of this hearing."

    The suggested motion to reject these recommendations is:

    That it is the opinion of council/committee/commission that the reccomendations presented in the report as presented and discussed be rejected and the application denied."

    It was our procedure to always have a motion to deny an applicaiton if Council had refused to approve the application. this was for clarity and to provide a clear understanding to council of what their action meant. It also provided us with ammo at the appeal board as it presented teh items that were considered in teh notes of decision.
    Too lazy to beat myself up for being to lazy to beat myself up for being too lazy to... well you get the point....

  19. #19
    Cyburbian ssc's avatar
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    I would like to add my voice to the choir - I have worked for two communities and in both the boards relied on getting notes from my office. And I do phrase them carefully: "The board should consider..."; "The board should keep in mind..." etc...

    I can also speak from the board side, as a member of my local planning board. We unfortunately do not have the $ to hire any professional staff, and the number of hours board members, esp. the chair, are required to put in just to make sure the applications are complete is ridiculous. And we don't even get a stipend!

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