Free Enterprise Forum Point/Counterpoint – Should Local Government Planning Staff Provide Application Recommendations?

By. Neil Williamson

Recently, Fluvanna County Planning Director Darren Coffey changed the manner in which they present land use applications to the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.  Fluvanna staff no longer provides a recommendation for approval or denial. 

The Free Enterprise Forum finds the question most interesting and asked each of our field officers to take a different position on the question of whether local government staff should make an application recommendation.  Please note these were assigned opinions and may not represent the actual opinions of our field representatives.

If after reading the opinions, you have an opinion to share, please continue the dialog on the blog.   The Free Enterprise Forum does not have a stated position and your knowledgeable input could help inform that decision.

93px-Symbol_thumbs_up_svgProfessional Planning Staff Should Provide Professional Opinion

By. Kara Reese Pennella, Greene County Field Officer

Small counties such as Greene County and Fluvanna County face many challenges. In recent years, both counties have experienced new growth. Local governments are straining to understand the implications of their land use and zoning policies for the future of their counties.  Who is better poised to understand these important land use decisions, county planners who have earned degrees in the subject matter or Planning Commissioners and Board of Supervisor members who often have very little training in planning?

In small counties like Greene, filling vacancies on the Planning Commission can be a challenge. For example, Stanardsville can not find enough applicants to fill the seats on their Town Planning Commission. Further, elected officials may mean well, but rarely have backgrounds in planning or related fields such as engineering or construction. They also must juggle other concerns and can not devote all their time to planning issues. The planning department staff is a counties best chance at receiving expert guidance on planning issues. Counties should not shy away from using that expertise to its fullest.

While appearing politically neutral is a good ideal for county planners, it does not and should not excuse staff from making specific recommendations on an application brought before the Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors.  Staff recommendations are an essential part of the planning process. Planning staff are hired to serve the interest of the county as a whole. How can that interest be served if their opinions regarding specific projects are silenced?

As for the fear that staff might act unilaterally to further their own political agendas, decisions such as ordinance revisions and zoning applications must still be approved by the Board of Supervisors. A planning department recommendation is no different than a Planning Commission recommendation in the sense that Board of Supervisors do not always follow the Planning Commissions recommendations. The Board can vote not to follow staff’s recommendations. The bottom line is counties pay their planning staff to plan and that should include making recommendations on applications that come before the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission.

thumbs down In A Small Community, Eliminating Recommendation Preserves Impartiality

By. William Des Rochers, Fluvanna County Field Officer

If, as Tip O’Neil once said, all politics is local, imagine how local it can be in a county like Fluvanna, with just some 26,000 souls.  In a place where it seems that everyone knows everybody, the temptation is strong to use the “good old person network”  — Fluvanna has elected several women so they should be welcomed to the club.

Moreover, the county’s administrative staff is quite small – the planning staff currently has just two members.  There just is no place to hide in Fluvanna, particularly on controversial issues.  Memories linger here; for some the big fight over building the Tenaska power plant was just little more than yesterday.

For these reasons, and others, the staff here needs to be insulated from politics wherever possible so that it might provide factual and unbiased information to the decision makers.  For example, some members of the Board of Supervisors will task staff for information on issues outside current workload requirements.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, unless supervisors evade the chain of command or dramatically increase the workload.  But it is not implausible to suggest that particularly in a small county one might easily manipulate those requests so that policy blurs into politics.  It is not unreasonable to suspect that supervisors up for reelection would not task staff for information in response to media articles, for example.

Planning director Darren Coffey decided to end the practice of making recommendations to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors on planning issues coming before those bodies.  Mr. Coffey at the time said it was to ensure that the staff had credibility with both sides:  the applicant and the government.  As projects evolve, Coffey believes that credibility is essential to the positive resolution of an issue.

Moreover, given the fissures that exist in the county over land-use, studied neutrality also enhances the credibility of county staff with the public.  The posture worked well during the debate and enactment of the Comprehensive Plan earlier this year.  And a heightened reputation for the planning staff will be needed when more controversial issues arise.

Albemarle has a large Planning Staff, and there recommendations are made within an institutional framework that insulates individuals.  Here in Fluvanna, the individual always is front and center, and there’s no room to hide.

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4 responses

  1. Fascinating question, and good answers on both sides. Makes me wonder how other localities throughout the state have opted to handle this.

  2. This is a very interesting question and there are compelling arguments on both sides. I probably land somewhere in the middle. I think it’s appropriate and constructive for staff to give guidance to the Planning Commission or Board regarding an application’s compliance with zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan but stop short of making recommendations for approval or denial. Such recommendations make it easy for politicians and put too much power in the hands of planners. Staff often uses the threat of a recommendation for denial to extract additional concessions out of the applicant which, in my view, usurps power that should reside with the Planning Commission and Board.

  3. ok, I’ve been mulling over this and I think I’d side with William. Expertise is important (I would have given up on degrees long ago if I thought otherwise), but I think its crucial for professionals to be honest with the limits of their expertise. I’d rather have a doctor tell me “you can take that pill if you want, but there isn’t much evidence that its effective” than just prescribe it to me. Likewise, there may be some decisions where planners see a clear solution but others that just boil down to opinion. Faced with the expectation to give an absolute recommendation for everything, it may be difficult for the Board to sort the expert analysis from personal speculations.

    Really, there is plenty of opportunity for staff to communicate praise or concerns to the Board anyway. For example, you can say “there is a 80% chance this building will be destroyed by a flood within 10 years” and let the Board decide that it probably shouldn’t be built. A recommended denial doesn’t add much.

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