Archive for January, 2014

MICHIGAN COUNTY PLANNING – ANALYSIS AND CRITIQUE OF THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT PLANNING AND ZONING REVIEW PROCESS

January 27, 2014

INTRODUCTION

Michigan law is unique. It subjects all local units of government master plans to a county planning review process intended to determine its consistency with surrounding local government plans among all other applicable plans.

For townships, this review process goes further subjecting the zoning ordinance and all amendments to a similar review.

In planning practices this concept is termed “concurrency”, the term given by planners to the concept of each master plan prepared by the respective local government to be “fitted together” and upon agreement to create a county plan.

Likewise, assembly of county plans creates regional plans and assembly of regional plans creates state plans and finally a national master plan.

This “bottom-up” master planning approach is designed to identify multi-jurisdictional infrastructure needs forming, the basis for a capital improvements multi-year budget.

FDR’s  Brain-Truster’s Stuart Chase and  Rexford Tugwell originated the concept in the 1930’s.  It was the basis of much of government’s role in economic planning whereby congress would use these plans to identify, on a national basis, where to invest federal funds for roads, water/sewer and other infrastructures.

While the Brian-Truster’s economic planning concept was ultimately vetoed by congressional action, the concept of multi-year capital improvement programs remains embedded in planning theory and today is a requirement in Michigan’s planning enabling legislation.

While Michigan once fully embraced economic and resource (land use) planning, interest evaporated in the 1950’s & 60’s in favor of economic development strategy and programs.  This ultimately resulted in a 1970’s renewed interest in environmental protection and need for government policies stimulating job creation as a recession remedy, including effort to establish a state land use planning law in 1975 and 1977 (HB 4234 – 1975, 4107 – 1977 and 4189 – 1977 plus SB 692 – 1977).

During this time the State of Florida was probably the leader in reinventing land use planning, promoting the concept of “concurrency” in its 1970’s Growth Management Act.  The state law required each level of local government to prepare a plan and link them together to create a statewide plan that identified location and timing, plus the funding source for each major infrastructure investment.

An elaborate collective conflict resolution process assured that all plans would fit together in a “jig-saw puzzle” fashion to make the final statewide plan.

Michigan’s law today is a “watered-down” byproduct of state land use planning theory employing the concept of a county planning commission review of local government prepared land use plans – in reality a county “concurrency” determination.

Today however, many question the “right “and the “role” of county planning commission judgment authority exercised by county planning commissions, in this review and concurrency role.

BACKGROUND OF THE SURVEY

To assess the value of this duty, the St. Joseph County Planning Commission and Board of Commissioners recently sponsored a survey to obtain information to make an informed judgment.

In August 2012, a request was made to each local government clerk to notify every elected official, planning commissioner, zoning board of appeals member, building inspector, code enforcement official, municipal attorney, manager and advisors to participate in an on-line survey.

There are between 200 and 300 elected and appointed officials, staff and advisors involved in local government planning and zoning decisions in St. Joseph County.

A range is given for the number of participants due to persons serving in duplicate capacities and variables in the number of appointees to planning commissions.

A total of 37 surveys were completed and submitted resulting in a response rate, between 12 and 19 %, comprising township, village and city responders.

PARTICIPANTS

Responders to the survey represented equally townships and cities/villages. Over half were elected officials, one-third appointed planning commissioners with the remainder being staff, consultants or legal advisors.

Twelve of the 16 township and 6 of the 7 cities/village participated.

MASTER PLAN REVIEW

FUTURE ACTIONS

While 18% of the responders did not know whether their Master Plan would require County Planning Commission review in the next several years, 30% indicated a 2013 review, 10% a 2014 and another 19%, a 2015 review will be required.

PAST REVIEW ACTIONS

Only 30% of the responders indicated knowledge of whether their current plan received County Planning Commission review, with 70% indicating no knowledge of whether the review found their current Master Plan to be consistent with the County Master Plan and those of surrounding local governments.

Only 20% of the responders indicated the County Planning Commission review being “somewhat helpful” to the local Planning Commission adoption of the current Master Plan.

FUTURE REVIEW ACTIONS

Eighty percent of the responders indicate that they don’t know whether the County Planning Commission review of their future Master Plan updates will be of value.

TOWNSHIP ZONING ORDINANCE REVIEW

PAST REVIEW ACTION

Sixty five percent of responders stated their township submitted all zoning actions for County Planning Commission review, with 36% indicating the need for one or two reviews in the past year.   Thirty percent indicated no need for any County Planning Commission review in the past year.

VALUE OF PAST REVIEWS

Over half of the responders indicate the County Planning Commission past reviews were very helpful, 6% little help and 41% indicating they did know if the review held any value.

VALUE OF FUTURE REVIEWS

While 41% of responders indicate they don’t know the value of future County Planning Commission reviews and another 12% indicating little or no help, 47% indicate the review to be very helpful.

MAJOR FINDINGS AND SURVEY CONCLUSIONS

1.  The role and legal duty of the County Planning Commission review function is unknown and possibly ignored by a majority of participants involved in township, city and village land use decision making.

2.  The value of the County Planning Commission review process, is questionable with a majority of those involved in local government land use decision making indicating little, or undetermined, value of  past and future  County Planning Commission review to decision-making by their local government.

3.  While required by law, the 5-year Master Plan update requirement is not recognized by a majority of responders with a vast majority unable to verify whether the County Planning Commission found their current Master Plan to be consistent with the county and other applicable plans.

COMMENTARY

There are many questions related to the value and necessity of the local government review function required of the County Planning Commission.  The most common question asked is whether it is important and needed.

Along with the unfunded state law mandate that the County Planning Commission review all Master Plans, but review only township, but not city or village, new zoning ordinances and amendments, many question county involvement in  local government control of land use decision-making.

For elected and appointed officials, many resent the notion of the County “telling them what to do” due to the strong bias towards this “local control”.

For some applicants processing unsuccessful approvals and for disgruntled affected property owners unhappy about a decision, the County Planning Commission is often viewed as a “super planning commission authority” with power to reverse or, at minimum, change” the local government decision.

This too – is viewed as an intrusion into local government local land use control.

In the present time of government austerity, providing services that have no, or limited, value invites inspection and possible action, to eliminate unneeded county services or to strengthen and economically justify the value of the County Planning Commission review function.

The Michigan County Planning Commission local government review function is obviously dysfunctional, as currently employed.

This analysis cites the need for corrective measures or elimination of an unneeded county government expense, a cost savings which can currently partially be accomplished by a resolution of the county board to eliminate review of township zoning matters.

It also identifies the need for possible planning legislation changes providing similar authority for elimination of the Master Plan review function.

FULL DISCLOSURE STATEMENT

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have served a 4-year term as a county planning director and 7-years as a regional planning director and nearly 30-years as a planning consultant to Michigan townships, cities and villages.

In this role he has first-hand experience in both conducting the County Planning Commission review function and processing township, city and village reviews before County Planning Commissions.

No recommendation is made on a course of action to be taken leaving this to the discretion of Michigan legislature.