Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Do Your Planning Boards Reflect Your Community?

Local planning boards, including planning commissions, zoning boards, design review committees, and other specialized bodies of appointed officials, are crucial to land-use decision-making across the U.S. They oversee comprehensive planning and land subdivisions, grant zoning variances, and review requests for discretionary use permits, among other duties. To minimize bias and advance equitable development outcomes, these bodies need to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

However, as Christine Quattro notes in the September issue of Zoning Practice, "Fostering Diverse Perspectives on Planning and Zoning Boards," studies have repeatedly demonstrated that planning and zoning boards are largely staffed by those with similar educational and professional backgrounds. Specifically, local elected officials tend to appoint people who have extensive knowledge about or experience with land use and development procedures. While on the face of it, this sounds reasonable, it sidelines other valuable experiences and perspectives.

Isn't Planning Knowledge a Good Thing?

Planning board members with preexisting knowledge about planning principles or firsthand experience with real estate development seem to have a leg up when it comes to making informed decisions about planning and zoning matters. As Quattro points out, it makes sense that people from groups who are more likely to recognize the direct effects of board decisions would be more likely to volunteer their time to serve. However, treating this knowledge and experience as a de facto prerequisite for board membership is often counterproductive.

Many cities, towns, and counties have professional planning staff that are already charged with giving voice to planning considerations. And, in those jurisdictions, the development community is likely to participate in land-use and development proceedings, with or without formal board representation. Consequently, holding space for these perspectives on planning boards can create an echo chamber effect. The possible exception is in smaller communities, where board diversity is more commonplace and elected officials may lack direct access to professional planning staff.

How Do We Change the Status Quo?

Quattro challenges planners and local leaders to proactively pursue planning board diversity and highlights several potential mechanisms that can help. Perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit for planners is to ensure that staff reports, code amendments, and supplemental educational materials for board members communicate planning principles and aims in plain language, whenever possible. Planners can also use staff reports to highlight underrepresented perspectives.

Elected officials have more direct control over structural changes. As Quattro highlights, several states and local jurisdictions have established formal planning board composition and training requirements. Composition requirements can reserve board positions for traditionally underrepresented groups, while training requirements can ensure that all members acquire a baseline knowledge of planning and development considerations.

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About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.

September 13, 2022

By David Morley, AICP