Uncovering JAPA

Using Staff Reports to Ensure Successful and Consistent Planning

In the United States, there is a growing trend in legislation and court cases that requires local decision-makers to articulate the reasons for their decisions related to land use matters. Local government staff reports are one way to provide legitimacy for land use decisions. This is the takeaway from Brian Ohm's article "Analyzing Action/Plan Consistency: The Role of the Staff Report," published in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 87, No. 1).

Relationship Between Plans and Zoning Clarified

Ohm begins this study by examining the comprehensive plan, a widely used component of planning thought and practice today. Comprehensive plans are not self-executing: they are meant to "guide future decisions regarding regulations, public investments, and other programs." In turn, these decisions should implement the plan. The use of a comprehensive plan has become critical to contemporary land use legislation. Several states have enacted laws that require that certain decisions around land use be related to the local comprehensive plan.

Planning scholars largely agree with this method of accountability, and have long advocated that the legal tools affecting land use and development, such as zoning ordinances, need to be based on a comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan can lay out goals, policies, and objectives for community change. However, there is often confusion around the precise relationship between comprehensive plans and zoning and how exactly one affects another.

The lack of clarity around this relationship can be dated back to 1926 when the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act was published. The Act stated that zoning regulations "shall be made in accordance with a comprehensive plan" but did not define what exactly is meant by a comprehensive plan. While there was a push to distinguish comprehensive planning from zoning in the 1950s, there is still not much specificity around the idea of "consistency." How does a municipality ensure that its actions (such as approving or denying a rezoning) are consistent with its comprehensive plan? Consistency requirements appear in various legal contexts throughout the country, yet this question is still a source of confusion.

Figure 1: Screenshot of writing tips from the City of San Louis Obispo.

Staff Reports Aid Plan Consistency Enforcement

Ohm notes that one way to clarify consistency between a comprehensive plan and legal decisions is through planning staff reports. Staff reports can help decision-makers understand their community's comprehensive plan to better frame their decisions. Because these decision-makers typically do not have detailed knowledge about the comprehensive plan, a staff report could act as a vehicle to provide them with critical information to cite as the basis for their decision.

To test the success of this method, Ohm conducted a content analysis of hundreds of staff reports in municipalities throughout the country. He found that many staff reports fail to provide decision-makers with a thorough assessment of consistency between their proposed legal action and the local comprehensive plan.

From Ohm's analysis, it is clear that local governments and municipalities should prioritize the staff report as an opportunity to highlight their comprehensive plan and ensure that all actions remain consistent with the plan. As the author notes, communities invest a lot in their comprehensive plan. They spend time and money on staff, citizen participation, consultants, and publication. But if this plan isn't made widely accessible and referred to frequently, all of these efforts are undermined. Planners have the opportunity to use staff reports to make their plans digestible to a wider audience of decision-makers and stakeholders. In turn, these decision-makers can help shape an equitable future for their community.

Top image: bagira22/ iStock/gettyimages.com

About the author
Emma Colley is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at Harvard University.

July 1, 2021

By Emma Colley