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Thread: Running a planning department

  1. #1
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Running a planning department

    Hey everyone,

    Okay, here's my situation. I just began working for a municipality in the metro NYC area as a planner. I moved here from Massachusetts for the position and my background is in nonprofits & community development. The other planner (the municipality's only planner until I arrived) is now out on maternity leave for the next two months, leaving me to more or less run the department in her absence. She will be checking in on a regular basis, but the day-to-day stuff will all be handled by the zoning clerk and I.

    So here are my questions:

    -I'm finding that this work is very political. I've had to be careful what I say and whom I say it to, because everyone here seems to know everyone else. There are more agendas and egos floating around than you can shake a stick at. In general, what kind of advice can you give me in navigating this new world? It seems like it is very much a balancing act of keeping the applicants, the zoning & planning boards, and the local residents all happy. I don't want to become someone that is two-faced in order to make everyone happy, because I know that it impossible. Someone warned me that residents in this area could be a bit difficult at times, and, well... I'm finding that to be true. I've had people get pretty angry over the phone and have had to de-escalate many situations. Everyone is your best friend until you tell them something that they don't want to hear.


    -Learning local rules and regs: this is something that I can't seem to do fast enough. There is just SO MUCH to know: state environmental regs, the local zoning code, the neighborhoods, the various quirks of the municipality (like the endless layers of government in New York State, which amazes me), the "who's who" in residents and local power players, and the new comp plan and form-based zoning regs we're working on; is this just the kind of thing that takes time, or is there anything I can do to speed the process of getting acclimated along?

    -Consultants: We've got consultants helping us with our comp plan and zoning code changes. I do have some experience managing consultants from my time developing affordable housing, but that was in the context of development teams for housing projects, not municipal policy documents and such. There's no question here per se, but I could use some guidance as to the "dos and don'ts" of working with consultants. I know there are plenty of you here.


    -I've got a lot more questions, but this is a start.

    Thanks for your help... this new planner appreciates it.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    Welcome to the world of municipal planning!!

    You're going to need a few of these

    My advice is to try not to make any waves the first 1-2 years you are there, especially if you do not have the political support from the elected officials. Without this support, you will find things very difficult, especially when dealing with irate citizens/developers/etc.

    When you have the support of the elected officials and they are willing to back you up on the decisions that you make when dealing with citizens/developers, you will find that you're job will become easier.

  3. #3
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    look at this as a great moment to show how good you can be - or at the very least, use this a wonderful learning experience

    it's wonderful because it's not forever -

    the first things is to stay calm - Rome didn't get built in a day and neither did it fall in a day -

    use your mediation skills to calm the angry phone call - at least you can read Cyburbia while they are yelling - remember they are not really mad at you, they don't like what you said - even when they make it personal, it's really not

    take your time to answer questions - it's really okay to say : I am still learning the local rules and I want to make sure I give you the correct answer so I will give you a call back tomorrow with an answer (don't ask if you can call them back, tell them you will) - this will reduce error as you can ask the manager when she calls in

    on consultants - not much to say, it depends on what the project is they are helping you out with - if it's a long term consultant that has been there a while and they are retainer, they could become your best buddy to help you with the ins and outs -

    keep us posted with how it's going -

  4. #4
    Cyburbian KSharpe's avatar
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    Welcome, Machete! I've been a planner for about 3 years, and this kind of crap still happens to me. (i.e. stepping on political toes, making old ladies cry, etc). You have to learn to grow a thick skin and remember, this is only work and I have a life outside it. One thing that took me a while to get down- Don't give people more hope than they should have for proposals. I had a couple once who wanted to put a tower on their land, and at the time, it seemed like a good idea. But I later realized, no, it was a bad idea, and we wouldn't support it. I had given them way too much positive feedback and it blew up in my face. It's always best to say "maybe" and then give them a pleasant surprise than to say "sounds good" and then disappoint them.
    Do you want to pet my monkey?

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Queen B's avatar
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    Good Luck.

    Listen alot.

    Don't get caught up in the good old boy system. You will feel better at the end of the day if you do the right thing not the easiest.
    It is all a matter of perspective!!!

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Fat Cat's avatar
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    Fat Cat

    I would agree with every thing already said.
    If one person from a the Planning Commission asks for something, make sure that they all get it.
    The same goes for anyother boards or commissions that you might be responsible for.
    Carry a pocket spiral notebook (faster than a palm) and when some one stops you a the gas station or grocery store or where ever with a question or comment, get their phone number, name and write the question or comment down and always always get back to them. If this doesn't happen during your career, I would be very surprised.
    Always always listen to what "anyone" has to say. Even if you think it is off the wall, there could be a nugget in there or on later reflection maybe it is not off the wall.
    Good luck and congratulations, we all started the same way.
    Also if you get the opportunity to take leadership training, take it.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian cch's avatar
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    I had a similar trial-by-fire at my last job, when on my first day my boss called me into her office and told me she had just accepted a new job and she would be leaving in 3 weeks. I had to learn everything fast. And in a lot of cases I didn't have the answer, and had to tell people that I will find out, and call them back.

    As for the politics, it is best to only answer the questions that are posed to you and don't elaborate on your personal opinion at all. Remember to use the word "alleged" a lot when you are talking about violations . Stick to the facts, remember that your elected officials approved the rules the way they are, and not you, and remind people of that when necessary.

    People are always going to be mad at your. Your job entails telling people what they can and can't do with their property. But, don't take it personal, be polite when you can, and you'll be fine.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Nice.....

    Stick to the codes as much as possible and don't try to change too much in the first couple years. The previous comments about gauging political support are valuable. Always remember to use the tools you may have to resolve conflicts:

    Appeals Board- Building and Admin. Decision Appeals
    "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."
    John Kenneth Galbraith

  9. #9
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Wow, many thanks, people. Today is the first day where I've had to run the show, and it's been rather intense. I'm really having to learn to think on my feet quickly in order to be effective - I find myself being 'ambushed' sometimes when someone comes in or calls with a question that I don't know the answer to. I'll be going to my first Planning Board meeting tonight, and I'll be sure to keep in mind all of what has been said here. I do find that I'm getting to know the folks in the Building Department pretty well... there's lots of collaboration between our departments on a daily basis.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Otis's avatar
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    Stick to the code and treat everyone fairly. No favoritism, no good ole boy nudge nudge, wink wink. There will be one or more PITAs that you want to discriminate against just to get even with them, but don't go there. Get a reputation for being fair.

    One of the big things to keep in mind is that you don't have to know every answer. "I don't know; I'll look that up and get back to you" is a good response to a lot a questions. You can use "I'm new here" to great advantage and an honest response in that regard goes a long way. It also helps to establish long term credibility.

    I've been a director for more than 8 years, wrote most of the zoning ordinance, and I very often look it up before answering a question just to make sure.

    One of the best refuges for you is "the code says ..." Then "here are the options the code allows: compliance, seek a variance (which in your case on first blush seems to be [un]warranted but I don't speak for the planning commission they could go either way), appeal, exception, etc." If the code provides safety valves, point them out. If some adjustment to the proposal would make it compliant, point it out. Try to be aware of quirks in your code like hidden places where special provisions that make a difference are lurking.

    Don't make applicants guess about what they need to do. "Nope, try again" just frustrates and pisses people off. And don't keep raising the bar: 'OK, you submitted the traffic study, now you need to give us a water pressure analysis." Tell them everything they need up front. That means you will have to spend a little time going over an application, but it will pay off.

    Admit when you're wrong. Last night I had a hearing on an appeal where the file had been lost for a year. (You'll be amazed what turns up when you terminate an employee). Rather than have the appellant rant about it in the hearing, I brought it up in presenting the staff report and gave a one-sentence explanation of what we're doing to prevent such problems in the future. It pulls the sting and enhances your credibility.

    Let the people responsible for political decisions make them: don't take it on yourself. Talk often to your organizational superiors to get their read on things so that when you have some wiggle room on interpretations you know the consequences of each possible interpretation.

    Oh, and blame your predecessor.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    Having run several department, my experience is, for the first few months, you will get inquiries from people who have been denied thier application, hoping your point of view is different from the historical "NO" that get received.

    This will die down in a few months. stick to your guns, and good luck!

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Richmond Jake's avatar
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    Lots of good advice so far. I'll add...
    Don't try and change things overnight; listen and observe. Identity what's working, what isn't.
    Differentiate between the big issues and the little issues.
    Don't sweet the little things.
    Consistency, predictability, and timeliness. Tattoo those words on your forehead.
    Annoyingly insensitive

  13. #13
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    Hey folks, I just finished Day 2 of my Planning Trial by Fire. Two issues came up today:

    -When the politicians have signed on to a project that you may have concerns over, how much can a planner get away with deviating from the "party line"? For one particular project, the Mayor and Board of Trustees are set on carrying out an initiative that may have some factors that need to be addressed and mitigated (or, if they prove to much to surmount, should be enough to shut this idea down). As planners, we all talk and keep tabs on what's going on in the planning world and have a sense of what kinds of initiatives and mechanisms for promoting positive growth are good (like TIFs, in many cases) or are half-baked and unsound (like widening a local thoroughfare to reduce traffic levels). How can I raise my concerns while not making too many waves and alienating the politicians?


    -Crazy, hysterical applicants. I just got off the phone with an prospective applicant that is outraged that she has to go through the entire planning board approval process for her project, because "the Village should be happy that I'm doing some development and should make the process a lot more streamlined than it is". Applications are due promptly at noon tomorrow, and she did not even call us until yesterday afternoon with this proposed project. The woman promised that she would be getting in touch with one of the local politicians whom she is friends with and that we should expect to get an angry call from this politician. I'm just following the code here, to the letter, but right now I'm feeling like just a bureaucrat, or a telemarketer, or something like that. I'm not here to obstruct good development and want to see this municipality prosper, and what planner doesn't? Thoughts?

    Thanks, everyone.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian KSharpe's avatar
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    Ugh, this crap happens all the time. We are always made to feel that we should be grateful that they selected our little hamlet for their grand scheme. Just shrug and say "I'm just a planner, I'm following the rules".
    Do you want to pet my monkey?

  15. #15
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    Just tell her that you appreciate her bringing the development to the village and that you want her project there, but specific rules were put in place to make sure development projects get built properly. We have a lot of developments here that were approved before my time (less than 5 years ago) which didn't really go through the process and there's a lack of landscaping, oversized signs and are generally poorly planned. You don't want that happening and that's precisely what the development review process is all about.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian Otis's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    -When the politicians have signed on to a project that you may have concerns over, how much can a planner get away with deviating from the "party line"? For one particular project, the Mayor and Board of Trustees are set on carrying out an initiative that may have some factors that need to be addressed and mitigated (or, if they prove to much to surmount, should be enough to shut this idea down). As planners, we all talk and keep tabs on what's going on in the planning world and have a sense of what kinds of initiatives and mechanisms for promoting positive growth are good (like TIFs, in many cases) or are half-baked and unsound (like widening a local thoroughfare to reduce traffic levels). How can I raise my concerns while not making too many waves and alienating the politicians?
    Your job is to let the politians know what the zoning issues are and how they can be addressed. If you think something is a bad idea from a policy standpoint, but there is no law against it, let them know, with the best documentation you can find to back it up. It's always a good idea to have some alternatives to present when you are saying something is a bad idea, again with documentation to back it up.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Nice....

    Me thinks there are a lot of good planners here on Cyburbia after reading some of these responses.......I'm getting that warm fuzzy fealing inside (kum ba ya)

    I think it's sweat that RJ doesn't sweet while making tough decisions at work

    he he he
    "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."
    John Kenneth Galbraith

  18. #18
    Cyburbian Rumpy Tunanator's avatar
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    Stick your guns.........

    They joys of public sector politics. This piece of advice should get you through the fun.


    All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don't break them for no one.
    A guy once told me, "Do not have any attachments, do not have anything in your life you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner."


    Neil McCauley (Robert DeNiro): Heat 1995

  19. #19
    Cyburbian Richmond Jake's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Rumpy Tunanator View post
    They joys of public sector politics. This piece of advice should get you through the fun.
    Off-topic:
    Didn't you learn anything working for me? It's called the art of compromise. Shhhhsss.


    Actually, maybe that's not off topic.
    Annoyingly insensitive

  20. #20
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    Hey folks, I just finished Day 2 of my Planning Trial by Fire. Two issues came up today:

    -When the politicians have signed on to a project that you may have concerns over, how much can a planner get away with deviating from the "party line"? For one particular project, the Mayor and Board of Trustees are set on carrying out an initiative that may have some factors that need to be addressed and mitigated (or, if they prove to much to surmount, should be enough to shut this idea down). As planners, we all talk and keep tabs on what's going on in the planning world and have a sense of what kinds of initiatives and mechanisms for promoting positive growth are good (like TIFs, in many cases) or are half-baked and unsound (like widening a local thoroughfare to reduce traffic levels). How can I raise my concerns while not making too many waves and alienating the politicians?


    -Crazy, hysterical applicants. I just got off the phone with an prospective applicant that is outraged that she has to go through the entire planning board approval process for her project, because "the Village should be happy that I'm doing some development and should make the process a lot more streamlined than it is". Applications are due promptly at noon tomorrow, and she did not even call us until yesterday afternoon with this proposed project. The woman promised that she would be getting in touch with one of the local politicians whom she is friends with and that we should expect to get an angry call from this politician. I'm just following the code here, to the letter, but right now I'm feeling like just a bureaucrat, or a telemarketer, or something like that. I'm not here to obstruct good development and want to see this municipality prosper, and what planner doesn't? Thoughts?

    Thanks, everyone.
    Sounds like you've already encountered the worst aspects of the job, and in the first week no less

    Dealing with politicians and the shady world in which they exist really stinks but you'll just have to deal with it for now. If it makes you feel any better today I was told by an applicant that his atrocious architectural style was requested by the Mayor himself (which I actually verified through a third party). You'll experience these situations in time because most politicians don't respect rules and procedures or have enough critical thinking ability to determine: "gee, maybe we ought to consult with our planning staff since they are trained to look at these things". Politicians usually make decisions that are not in the best interests of the city (surprise) because they want to please developers and their cadre of lawyers, engineers, and contractors. They'll often meet with them behind closed doors before the project is even submitted for your review. By the time you get anything to review it'll all be decided; at the public hearing they'll neglect to disclose that they ever met with the applicant.

    As for dealing with hysterical applicants, this will happen occasionally. Usually it is people like the woman you described: completely unprofessional and antagonistic because either they don't understand the code or they don't want to pay a consultant to do the work for them. These folks are like the lone wolves of the front counter, and you'll often find that what their applying for is questionable and even economically unfeasible to begin with. Fortunately though, you should fare better in your encounters with architects and engineers. Excepting a few bad apples, there are many private sector consultants that produce quality projects and deal with municipal planners in a respective manner. As for lawyers, well, let's just not go there...

  21. #21
    Cyburbian cch's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by MacheteJames View post
    -Crazy, hysterical applicants. I just got off the phone with an prospective applicant that is outraged that she has to go through the entire planning board approval process for her project, because "the Village should be happy that I'm doing some development and should make the process a lot more streamlined than it is". Applications are due promptly at noon tomorrow, and she did not even call us until yesterday afternoon with this proposed project. The woman promised that she would be getting in touch with one of the local politicians whom she is friends with and that we should expect to get an angry call from this politician. I'm just following the code here, to the letter, but right now I'm feeling like just a bureaucrat, or a telemarketer, or something like that. I'm not here to obstruct good development and want to see this municipality prosper, and what planner doesn't? Thoughts?
    I think that after she talks to her politician "friend" the politician will be glad to know that such a capable and thorough person is running the department. But, chances are the politician is equally clueless about the proper procedures, and in that case you'll have to educate him. Just make it clear that there are certain procedures, but you vow to assist her in every way you can throughout the process.

    The main thing is, don't get scared when someone threatens to talk to the big wigs. In my experience it usually just means you have to explain things to a couple extra people, but you definitely won't be raked over the coals or anything like that.

  22. #22
    Cyburbian Tobinn's avatar
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    Get it in writing

    Save all emails, get everything in writing, verbal agreements aren't worth the paper on which they're written.

    If one of your elected officials directs you violate the Code make sure you get that in writing and let them sign off on the project. I say that tongue in cheek as it'll probably never get to that point. But do ask the power(s) that be for their directives in writing.

    On a side but related note, is there a City Manager or someone else to whom you report? That person should be the buffer between you and the politicos.

    Anyway, tons of great advice preceding:
    [*]Stand your ground[*]Be firm[*]Follow the rules to the "T"[*]Smile sincerely[*]Commiserate if you have to[*]Treat everyone exactly the same (meaning firmly but nicely)[*]Quote the Code - you don't write'em you just read'em[*]Smile sincerely[*]Admit your mistakes early and often[*]Always provide at least one solution - even if it's not the one they want[*]Call back when you say you will (aim for within 24 hours) - even if it's to say that you don't have an answer yet and that you're still working on it.[*]Smile sincerely[*]Pick one day a week (or every other week) to stay late - nothing amazes people more that to get a call from a City planner at 7:00 in the evening.
    At times like this, you have to ask yourself, "WWJDD?"
    (What Would Jimmy Durante Do?)

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