Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is a Planning Commission?

4 minute read

Planning commissions fill an influential advisory role in planning processes, maintaining citizen oversight of government planning powers and also providing a public forum for debate about the future of communities.

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Planning commissions serve an advisory role in planning and development approval processes, providing recommendations that influence approvals processes for developments, land use plans, and infrastructure investments, among other duties. Planning commissioners are sometimes referred to as citizen planners, a term used to describe both the critical role of planning commissioners in planning processes and the limitations of that influence. In the vast majority of jurisdictions, the planning commission does not exercise legal power to approve or deny developments and plans—city councils or county boards have the final say on land use planning and development. 

In an advisory capacity, however, planning commissions provide influential citizen oversight of government powers. Planning commissions can wield significant influence on a development approval process, by holding public forums and voting on dispositions toward projects and plans. Planning commissions provide a key forum for discussion and debate in planning processes, and as the first step in the approvals process, planning commissioners hold a significant degree of negotiating power over the details of a plan or development. 

Planning commissions can also fill a political role. Some of the political motivation of planning commissioners is by design. In most cities, planning commissioner roles are filled by appointment from the city council, county board, or mayor. Some planning commissioners use this appointment as a springboard to a political career. Once appointed, planning commissioners do not receive compensation for the work. While state constitutions grant the power for local governments to appoint and empower planning commissions, there is no mandate for local governments to create a planning commission—so an inherently political body is part of the purpose of a planning commission.

The issues reviewed by planning commissioners can apply to the work of a variety of local governmental departments, officials, and agencies, as well as private developers and individuals. Depending on the jurisdiction, planning commissioners are in a position to negotiate the terms of deals on variety of planning and development proposals:

  • Subdivision and land development
  • Sewage facilities 
  • Stormwater management 
  • Floodplain management
  • General plans
  • Comprehensive plans 
  • Specific plans 
  • Zoning codes and subdivision maps
  • Development project approvals
  • Zoning variances
  • Land acquisitions
  • Special studies
  • Citizen planning education

This list includes issues across the spectrum of the planning and development process. A planning commission is therefore 

  1. a leader in the process of establishing a vision for the future of the community, by writing and recommending the approval of general plans, for example, and 
  2. a public watchdog for the process of implementing that vision, by approving or denying zoning codes, development plans, and variances. 

Planning commissions are only an early, not final, step in an approval process. In many states, planning commissions will report their recommendations to zoning boards, city council committees, or city councils to inform final review and legal approval. Some jurisdictions grant other entities—such as zoning boards, zoning adjustment boards, building officials, historic preservation commission, zoning administrators, and more—the power to make decisions regarding planning and development outside of the city council. In other states, the planning commission is required to also include a member from the zoning board of adjustments—one of the other planning entities empowered to make decisions and recommendations in the planning and approval processes. 

There are other limitations on the reach of planning commission power. In California, for example, any planning commission action can be appealed to the governing body (e.g., the city council), according to the League of California Cities. The governing body can then uphold the planning commission’s decision, overturn it, modify it, or return it for further study.

Planning commissioners must also be careful to avoid conflicts of interest, recusing themselves from voting on issues where they might have some financial stake in the outcome. The risk of corruption in the planning and approval process is high, with a lot of money at stake with approvals. Many states have laws forbidding specific standards of ethics and conflict interests for planning commissioners.

Some variation between the roles and responsibilities of planning commissions is common, depending on the jurisdiction and the laws of the local jurisdiction's home state. Some planning commissioners can take a larger role in the planning process, such as in the state of Indiana, where planning commissioners are involved in the draft of comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances, and subdivision ordinances. Not all planning commissions are local, too. In the state of Pennsylvania, regional planning commissions provide recommendations related to cross-jurisdictional regional growth boundaries (also known as urban growth boundaries). Finally, some planning commissions function at the neighborhood level, like in Los Angeles, where smaller "area planning commissions" fill a similar role at the neighborhood level as the city planning commission does for the entire city.

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