Survey of Planning Board Members Enlightening

A questionnaire administered by the Planning Commissioners Journal yields fascinating results concerning the diversity, occupational backgrounds, and selection processes of various planning boards and planning board members nationwide.

Wayne SenvilleThis
August, the Planning Commissioners Journal sent out a short questionnaire
to planners and planning commissioners on our e-mail list. The survey was designed
to supplement articles in our Fall issue focusing on planning board composition
and diversity. We received an astonishing (to us) number of replies, hearing
back from 242 of the 620 individuals we e-mailed.1
Bear in mind, however, that the results were not based on a statistically composed
random sample. Nevertheless, we feel we learned much -- and came away with some
surprises -- from the feedback we received.

Achieving Diversity

What struck us most was the very wide diversity in backgrounds of planning
board members -- and the relatively small number of communities having criteria
for appointment of planning commissioners (beyond residency). As one town clerk
from New York put it: “We do have diversity. However, I don’t think
we actually planned it.”

Nevertheless, a number of communities have made efforts to achieve
diversity. For example, John Kross, Community Development Director for Queen
Creek, Arizona, reported that in his community about one-third of the population
is of Hispanic origin: “Our Mayor and Council have made a point to consider
the ethnic balance of the community, as well as gender balance of all boards
and commissions. However, this is not a prescriptive policy.”

A number of replies to our survey noted the value of having individuals with
backgrounds in certain fields. According to Pete Dickinson, Planning Director
for the City of Pullman, Washington, while his city has no formal criteria for
appointment, “we usually like to have at least one real estate developer
or broker on the planning commission ... we also like to have representation
from all quadrants of the city.” Russ Soyring, Planning Director for the
City of Traverse City, Michigan, feels that “having an architect on the
Commission helps fellow Commissioners understand building plans better,”
while Marty Ryan, City Planner for Cedar Falls, Iowa, reports that his city
seeks to have a geographically balanced commission, without a “clustering”
of members from one or two parts of the city.”

Better gender balance was listed as a goal in several replies. Cindy Gray,
a senior planner and zoning administrator in Fargo, North Dakota, told us of
efforts to increase gender diversity on the Fargo Planning Commission. Three
women now serve on the 11 member board (up from just one recently).

Criteria for Board Composition

We did hear back from several communities which do have written criteria on
planning board composition. For example, Bryan Wood, Zoning Administrator for
the City of Greenville, South Carolina told us that by city ordinance planning
commissioners are to be appointed “in consideration of their professional
expertise, knowledge of the community, and concern for the welfare of the total
community and its citizens” and that “membership shall represent
a broad cross section of the interests and concerns of persons residing and
doing business within the city.”

Allara Mills-Gutcher, a senior planner with the Bay County Board of Commissioners
in Panama City, Florida, reported that her county’s land development regulations
call for the planning commission to include three members “who have demonstrated
an involvement or expertise in the development of land, such as an architect
or landscape architect, and engineer, a person in real estate or development
or a general contractor; three people who have demonstrated an involvement or
expertise in the protection and conservation of the environment. ...; and three
who do not have ties to either of the above.”

Planners from Michigan noted that under their state’s Municipal Planning
Act, a planning commission must “represent insofar as is possible
different professions or occupations.”

Who’s on Board

Not surprisingly, attorneys are well represented on planning boards (7%). It
also came as little surprise that a relatively high proportion of commissioners
work in development, real estate, building, and related fields (13%). On the
other hand, we were surprised to find a fairly high proportion of commissioners
(6%) who are teachers (in either K-12 schools or colleges and universities).

In contrast, certain professions appear to be very poorly represented. Most
striking, perhaps, is the paucity of medical professionals serving on planning
boards (just 1%). Refer to Figure 1 for the occupational
distributions of the planning board members.

Several of those responding stressed the importance of other traits over the
value of any particular occupational background. As Paul Ketelsen, Zoning Administrator
for Clinton County, Iowa, succinctly noted: “People with intelligence
and good judgment are better than trying to find specific backgrounds in the

How Commissioners are Selected

Planning commission recruitment and appointment processes were another focus
of the questionnaire. 97% of the communities replying indicated that commissioners
are appointed.

The appointment process varies greatly, though the most common method by far
is appointment by the governing body. Most planning commissions are comprised
entirely of “at large” appointees. The most common exception to
the above are commissions having a designated slot for a member of the governing

While few communities have guidelines for the appointment of new members, many
require completion of a written questionnaire and/or interviews by the mayor
and governing body.

Berlin, New Hampshire, uses an intriguing approach to planning commissioner
appointment. As city planner Pamela Laflamme reports, “We usually take
new members on as non-voting associate members to allow for an educational immersion
into the Board. Then, when they feel ready and there is an opening, the Planning
Board votes to recommend an associate member to the Mayor for appointment.”

Several replies noted the difficulty of finding people to serve on small town
(or county) planning commissions. As a planner from Montana noted: “Because
we often don’t get several people expressing interest in a vacancy, when
someone does express interest, we tend to jump on it and appoint that person
without much consideration of their ‘qualification’ or ability to
make the time commitment.”

Comments on the political nature of the appointment process were also common.
A sampling: “the process is very political” (from a California planning
commissioner); “appointments sometimes are the result of political favors”
(from a Michigan planner); “the appointment process can become very political”
(from a Maryland planner); “appointments are used as payback for election
support or to appease factions calling for more representation” (from
a former Virginia planning commission chairman); “politics still plays
a big role” (from a North Carolina planner).

For more on the survey results and resources on planning board membership visit
the Planning Commissioners
Journal website

Wayne M. Senville is Editor of the Planning
Commissioners Journal
. He is former Director of Regional & Local Planning
Assistance for the Vermont Department of Housing & Community Affairs. Mr.
Senville also served on the Burlington, Vermont, Planning Commission from 1990-1999,
including three years as its Chair.


1. All told, the 242 replies we received listed the occupations
of 1,724 planning commissioners (giving an average commission size of about
7 members). We received replies from planners in 42 states. Geographically (by
broad U.S. Census region), 30% of the replies were from the Midwest; 17% from
the Northeast; 26% from the South; and 26% from the West. We also received replies
from 3 Canadian communities.

Figure 1:




Citizen Planners

This country's tradition of citizen planners, a.k.a. planning commissioners, is an unsung strength of our system of governance.

Great comment, Lisa

I used to attend meetings in the Washington area when I worked in Fredericksburg, and in both places it struck me how much the public participation process was dominated by "professional citizens" - the vast majority being childress (i.e., retired) or (deliberately) childless yuppies.

The flaw with this type of participation goes far beyond just the child friendly transit stuff - these folks generally push an anti-sprawl 'smart growth' agenda that is distinctly family-unfriendly in many aspects. They tend to totally ignore the quality of school system issues that cause the bulk of middle class people in higher cost areas to choose sprawl development because they can't afford private schools and don't want their kids going to some inner city or inner ring suburban school in The War Zone.

The end result of this type of warped participation is the formulation of transportation plans with features that are totally unimplementable - mostly just bones of appeasement tossed to these folks to keep the Fear Of Being Sued By (insert extreme leftist activist group name here) at bay.

It stinks because this isn't public participation - it ends up being downright out and out lobbying and coercion - and I'm sure the DC area isn't the only place that this happens.

My point here is that a lot of public participation, in my view, tends to end up advocating a certain viewpoint because planners (and their political bosses) are understandably hesitant to confront advocates because they don't want to make waves (and more importantly, get paid!).

How many have children?

I am curious as to whether you surveyed members to see how many have school age children. Here in Arlington, Virginia, we have a fantastic planning and comment process to go with our great transportation system. Unfortunately, the input process has gotten to be so elaborate, that meetings last over several days. The meetings that do end in one session can last until midnight. People with children have been engineered out of this process. As such, plans and individual projects can lack family-friendly features, such as transit-oriented day care and playgrounds (unless we get a good board member as parent watchdog). All too often, transit stations are geared towards "empty-nesters" and young techies - though it is families with children that need transportation choices the most! Unfortunately, those who can best make the case are otherwise tucking the kids in bed.

Planning annd Zoning

Next time, please check out Georgetown County, S.C., with respect to both Planning and Zoning but not just in regard to what they might say; please look at the actual practice. Maybe some publicity will help us poor citizens here, who have to suffer from that garbage produced under the guise of Planning and Zoning.

building block set

NEW! Build the world you want to see

Irresistible block set for adults when placed on a coffee table or desk, and great fun for kids.
Red necktie with map of Boston

For dads and grads: tie one on to celebrate your city!

Choose from over 20 styles imprinted with detailed city or transit maps.

NEW! Get the "Green Bible"

Understand the complexities of planning at the local level while preparing for the AICP* exam. Find out why this edition is included in the APA's recommended reading list.
Book cover of Unsprawl

Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places

Explore visionary, controversial and ultimately successful strategies for building people-centered places.
Starting at $12.95