Does Comprehensive Planning Work?
By CHARLES ECKENSTAHLER, AICP and CRAIG HULLINGER, AICP
Does our Comprehensive Plan function as it was intended? Does it guide land use decisions? Should it be updated or replaced?
These are common questions frequently raised by elected officials and planning staff. But it was of more recent concern to Bill Ernat, Community Development Director for the Village of Homewood. “ The Board of Trustees, after several months of discussion, authorized the update of our plan last updated in 1986,” said Ernat.
“ The Trustees questioned whether the Plan was effective and worthwhile. They asked if it had helped guide past land use decisions, and was in need of updating.” As the first step in preparing an update to the plan, Ernat wanted to know if officials and village administrators thought that the current plan was valid. He also wanted to know whether the Plan had influenced past and current decision making in the village.
To gather information, the Village Planning Consultant was instructed to survey thirty key officials. Included in the roster were all elected officials; the members of the Plan Commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals; chairmen of several advisory committees and commissions, such as the Economic Development Committee and Appearance Commission; the Park District; as well as village management staff and department heads.
The Survey Data was collected on two primary issues. The first issue was to test whether the current plan (prepared in 1986) was still valid for current use. The second issue questioned the respondees’ familiarity with the plan and whether they personally viewed the document as influential in decision-making. Survey Findings Responses were returned by about one-half of the key village leaders. While the survey was not a true statistical sampling, the results were felt to represent a realistic portrayal of the attitudes of village leadership.
The results of the survey, by question, follow:
Is the current plan valid? 14% said yes, 29% said no and 57% said they didn’t know.
Is the current plan relevant for the future? 14% said yes, 21% said no and 64% said they didn’t know.
Have you read the plan? 14% said yes, 71% said no and 14% had no opinion.
Has the plan provided guidance for decision-making? 36% indicated some and substantial, 14% said little and 50% said none.
What Homewood Officials Realized Village President Richard Hofeld wasn’t surprised with the results of the survey, but a little disappointed. “We take pride in the process of local government decision-making in Homewood,” said Hofeld. “I am happy that more than a third of the respondees indicate the plan influences our decision-making process. What’s more disturbing is the uncertainty of whether the plan is a valid decision-making tool now and in the future. These survey findings really confirm that we made the right decision to update the plan. The process of the update will provide the opportunity for the leadership and all residents to reacquaint themselves with the plan and our development goals for the future.”
Ernat suggests there may be a number of reasons for the survey results, including:
1.Timeliness of the Plan The plan document was more than 10 years old. Many changes had occurred in the community since the plan was last updated. It can be surmised that many of the leaders would view the document as out of date. Many leaders had not bothered reading the document, assuming it was out of date.
2.Personalization and Community Ownership of the Plan Another reason could be the existence of new participants in village planning and governmental administration, many who have specific ideas of what direction future planning should take.
3.Lack of Validity It can be surmised that the content of the plan may be out-of-date, so why bother to read it! What Was Learned From The Survey Process? Ernat states that the village learned from the survey that, “Our plan was no longer an up-to-date document. A plan has a useful shelf life. That time period is different in every community and is based on many factors. Most important is who participates in the process of preparing the plan, what issues are addressed and how the document is amended to remain current. Probably just as important is how the document is promoted by elected and appointed officials as the village tool for decision making.”
The update process of the Homewood Comprehensive Plan included six neighborhood public input sessions, interviews with the key leaders, and a wide variety of discussion sessions with advisory bodies and resident interest groups. The outcome, in addition to the traditional big report, will be an Executive Summary “Brochure Plan” summarizing future development policies. The brochure will include a copy of the Future Land Use Map of the village.
This document will be used to promote the updated Comprehensive Plan as an easily recognized decision making tool for both government and private sector use. What Other Communities Should Know Almost every elected official has heard the advice on how important it is to have a current plan when defending legal challenges to land use decisions in court. However, there are a number of other benefits, including:
1. Elected and appointed officials are more likely to make a concerted effort to use the plan in making land use decisions if they were involved in its development and adoption. Listening to citizens’ input makes elected officials more aware and knowledgeable of the community.
2. The preparation of the plan must include a wide range of interests and the maximum number of participants to assure “ownership” of the plan.
3. The document must be widely distributed in a concise format which is easily read by the general public.
4. Elected officials and community leaders must promote awareness of the Comprehensive Plan and its importance in decision making.
5. Staff should consider use of the Plan for influencing development decisions by distribution of the Plan as a statement of what the community likes and dislikes in terms of new development within the community.
6. Elected officials and staff should always include reference to the Comprehensive Plan in the approval and denial of development actions.
7. Annually, the test of current validity and the need for updating should be considered to retain high visibility, use and public recognition of the Comprehensive Plan as a guide for decision making.
8. When the Board makes a decision that does not comply with the Plan, the Plan should be formally amended so that the Plan remains consistent with that decision.
9. A large, full-color Land Use Plan Map, containing goals and objectives, and principal recommendations should be framed and mounted in the Village Board room.
Village Manager Dave Niemeyer sums up the feelings of elected and appointed officials plus administrative staff this way. “We will ask the same questions about a year after adoption of the Comprehensive Plan Update. I’ll bet the results of the survey will show opposite results. We intend to ask these questions annually, to determine when to update the plan next. Homewood officials have a vision for the future. Our updated Comprehensive Plan will serve its intended purpose.”
Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP, is the owner of Public Consulting Team, a Benton Harbor, MI, planning consulting firm engaged by the Illinois communities of Beecher, Sauk Village and Homewood to serve as their consulting planner.
Craig Harlan Hullinger, AICP, is a governmental planning consultant and President of Planning Development Services. He recently reentered private practice after serving as the Assistant Village Manager for Tinley Park. He also has served as Will County Director of Land Use.