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Thread: Going from consulting to small town planning

  1. #1
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    Going from consulting to small town planning

    I just got back from an interview at a small town in the Portland region for an Associate Planner position doing mainly development review and some Main Street work.

    They had me do about 45 minutes of written exercises - a pre-app review, a mock letter, and a prioritization exercise with about 30 different emails from various people and how I would address and prioritize them.

    I have been working for five years at a planning consulting firm and have not gotten down to the nuts and bolts of current planning on the job. In addition, I just graduated from PSU with the MURP degree, where we don't get much practical experience with current planning.

    My question is: how do I get experience in the public sector doing development review aside from going back to square one? Are there books I can read, or other resources? How do other people break into that role?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    Current planning accounted for 65-75% of my annual billings at my first job (private sector). There is no one "how-to" for writing memos. I would review the plans, type up a review memo, and my boss would redline the memo beyond recognition. Over time I learned how to mimic his writing style, which was very succinct and brief. My writing style on cyburbia is long, windy, and verbose, which is in stark contrast to my planning writing.

    Over time I taught myself how to negotiate and use leverage with designers and developers. As a consultant I juggled plan review for 13 communities at the same time. Some times I would be inundated with reviews, many of them 2nd and 3rd re-reviews. I had to find ways of fast tracking projects to keep the pile of work down. I did most of the negotiation over the phone or in-person meetings with the developer. I didn't make concessions at the sake of the ordinance requirements. Rather, I would use leverage by pointing out where I cut the developer slack on other projects in other communities to use as bargaining chips to get them to do the write thing in the current project.

    Hope this helps-
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

  3. #3
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by tigereyed View post

    My question is: how do I get experience in the public sector doing development review aside from going back to square one? Are there books I can read, or other resources? How do other people break into that role?
    OJT, bay-beeeeee!

    Anyone can do that. Don't worry about it. Worry about getting to where nrschmid talked about, and learning about how people want to manipulate you and how you can get others to do what you want, while at the same time getting that stuff that Vivek taught you implemented. Not a problem. Just do what the community wants, and help them understand what they want. And remember what Vivek told you about local knowledge.

  4. #4
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    In addition, I just graduated from PSU with the MURP degree, where we don't get much practical experience with current planning.

    I have been accepted to PSU and am considering attending in the fall.

    What about the program does not give you experience with current planning practices? Do the interships available in the Portland region provide experience and networking for careers?

    thanks

  5. #5
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    You know more than you think you do actually - I went form working at design and planning firms for 7 years to municipal planning and yeah, I had to wing it for a while but then it clicks in

    good luck, hope you get the job!

  6. #6
    I don't really get why a lot of municipalities expect planning grads to know a lot about current planning stuff. Current planning is mostly about process, and a large portion of that is managing emails, basic communication, etc. These are things you pick up on the job. You're not going to know their process until you've worked in that process. School is for more fundamental learning, teaching you how to think. Sure, you should have learned plenty of practical skills, but comparing applications to plans, processing paperwork, and typing up memos are things that any mildly competent individual can learn on the job. As you learn your functions, as you mature as a professional, etc., then you can worry about all the nuances.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by face.yo View post
    In addition, I just graduated from PSU with the MURP degree, where we don't get much practical experience with current planning.

    I have been accepted to PSU and am considering attending in the fall.

    What about the program does not give you experience with current planning practices? Do the interships available in the Portland region provide experience and networking for careers?

    thanks
    A class on current planning is a step in the right direction. I would make two additional recommendations.

    1. Read the book Planning in Plain English.
    2. Go on the internet and dig up review memos. These are not always easy to find as some communities are very protective about internal reports that could be held up to scrutiny by the public before the project is done. You might even consider writing an email or typing up an actual letter to a current planning department, explaining your curiosity about the current planning process, and to see some examples.

    Here are a few other tips on current planning that you won't learn in a classroom.

    1. Every supervisor has a different writing style. Some prefer certain words and hate using other words. I think there is a thread or two on this somewhere on cyburbia. For me, learning when and how to use the words require and recommend was a science.
    2. Not every plan commission/staff interprets requirements/guidelines the same way. I conducted 5 very different types of landscape plan review for 13 communities (as well as site plan review and architectural review). Community A did review strictly by plant units. Community B wanted so many 24" shrubs, ornamental trees, deciduous trees per 100 linear feet. Community C wanted "a mixture of plant material". Community D didn't give a flying fig so long as it wasn't plastic looking.

    In some communities, some unaddressed requirements for a development are dealt with behind closed doors, separate from your work as a planner. I found this more prevalent during the boom when I was flooded with review memos. Usually they were very small changes, such as permitting PVC fencing when it was prohibited by ordinance or alllowing a different type of trash enclosure in a parking lot. I don't think it's a good idea to go against what is formally adopted by code BUT when you have a few smallER items stalling up development approval, it becomes pennywise and pound foolish.

    3. Be VERY organized and never ever throw anything away. When I say organized it is not just properly filing each submittal correctly, but also to have a working knowledge of the current code, previous codes (remember, older projects are often grandfathered) and even phonecalls. I have a very good long-term memory and remembering old phone conversations really helped me with the leverage and negotiation I talked about earlier. Sometime in your planning career, you MIGHT review projects that have multiple codes/requirements tacked on. There were a few projects that were grandfathered under older codes, but had a new annexation agreement or PUD requirements (which often superceded the code) as well as more ambiguous design guidelines. You had to strike the right balance with EVERY decision maker (developer, staff planner, plan commission) to make sure that everything was addressed and worded in the correct way.

    4. IF you find anything extra when reviewing the plan (that is not required by ordinance or recommended by guidelines) make a note of it and mention it to the client/staff planner separately from the review memo. For example, in Community Z the scope of my contract was for architectural or site plan review. However, if I noticed somewhere in the plan submittal that they were using prohibited plant material or pavers, I would address it separately.

    5. Some developers will argue with every single issue in the book. Stick to your guns and defend your memo and it's requirements/recommendations. It is not your job to bend to the developer, leave it up to the plan commission to figure it out. If your plan commission is also crooked, well...that's a whole different ethics discussion.

    Hope this helps-
    "This is great, honey. What's the crunchy stuff?"
    "M&Ms. I ran out of paprika."

    Family Guy

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally posted by face.yo View post

    What about the program does not give you experience with current planning practices? Do the interships available in the Portland region provide experience and networking for careers?
    @face.yo Congrats on getting in! The program excels in long-range planning and policy, but aside from two classes in land use implementation and site planning, does not focus much on the procedures for current planning. Land use implementation in particular covers a ton of ground but you learn specifics about comp planning and zoning. In the region, MURP students are like gold - people love to have them as interns. I would say do several internships during your time at PSU in different organizations, both public and private.

    @nrschmid and everyone else- thank you so much for your insights and reassurance. You echo what I've heard from other people with current planning experience that you learn everything on the job. It's just funny when the interview focuses so much on very specific skills and facts, such as the difference between a subdivision and a partition. I think that was probably one of the more odd interviews I'll have - I think I'll be more confident defending my skills and my ability to pick up current planning after that interview!

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally posted by tigereyed View post
    I just got back from an interview at a small town in the Portland region for an Associate Planner position doing mainly development review and some Main Street work.

    They had me do about 45 minutes of written exercises - a pre-app review, a mock letter, and a prioritization exercise with about 30 different emails from various people and how I would address and prioritize them.

    I have been working for five years at a planning consulting firm and have not gotten down to the nuts and bolts of current planning on the job. In addition, I just graduated from PSU with the MURP degree, where we don't get much practical experience with current planning.

    My question is: how do I get experience in the public sector doing development review aside from going back to square one? Are there books I can read, or other resources? How do other people break into that role?
    My advice (as a long-time small-town planner) is to get yourself very familiar with the city's codes related to planning, subdivision,etc. Also be sure you are up to speed with their comprehensive plan and other local planning efforts (revitalization, downtown, etc. and any unique characteristics of the community. Small towns are too frequently dismissed as stepping stones on the way to a "real" job, and the supervisor will want to know that you are really investing time to become knowledgeable and an asset to the team. Also, stress your capabilities for being a generalist and your interest in becoming well-rounded in all areas - most small towns don't have the luxury of having their planners truly be "current planning only" or "long-range only", and you will probably be expected to pitch in wherever and whenever needed from time to time.

    The advantages of small towns are that you will learn everything from top to bottom, nuts and bolts, and you have more opportunities to truly make a difference instead of just being a cog in a very large machine.

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