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.
October 14, 2002, 12am PDT | Wayne Senville
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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 community.”

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 body.

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:


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