IS COMPREHENSIVE PLAN STILL WORKING?
Charles Eckenstahler, AICP and Craig Hullinger, AICP
How do we know if our current Compensive Plan really helps guide land use decisions is a common questions 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 finally authorized the update of our plan prepared in 1986. It was a difficult task to convenience the Board of Trustees and others, that the update was over due. At the root of their concern was the nagging problem of demonstrating the plan had helped guide past land use decisions and was in need of updating.”
Ernat, as the first step in preparing an update to the plan wanted to know if elected and appointed officials plus village administrators viewed the current plan valid and whether it was recognized as influencing past and current decision making in the village.
To gather information, the Village Planning Consultant was instructed to survey a roster of thirty key officials. Included in the roster were all elected officials; the members of the Plan Commission, and Zoning Board of Appeals; Chairs of several advisory committees and commissions, such as the Economic Development and Appearance Commissions; the Park District; as well as village management staff and department heads.
Data was collected on two primary issues. The first was to test whether the current plan (prepared in 1986) was valid for current use. Second, information concerning the respondees familiarity with the plan and whether they personally viewed the document as influential in decision making was requested.
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 portray 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, and 14% said little 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. I am happy that over 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, now. 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 their may be a number of reasons for the results including:
1. TIMELINESS OF THE PLAN
With the document being over 10 years old, it can easily be surmised that many of the leaders would view the document as out of date and not place a high priority to read the document.
2. PERSONALIZATION AND COMMUNITY OWNERSHIP OF THE PLAN
Another reason could be that the participants in the 1986 planning process, the authors of the plan, were no longer involved with decision making in the village. Thus, the knowledge and commitment towards use of the plan as a guidance tool is not as personal with the current village leadership.
3. LACK OF VALIDITY
It can be surmised that the content of plan is out-of-date so Why bother to read it!
WHAT WAS LEARNED FROM THE SURVEY PROCESS
Ernat summarizes what the village learned from the survey in a simple statement, “our plan failed the test of time. 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 a the village tool for decision making.”
The process for the update of the Homewood Comprehensive Plan includes six neighborhood public input sessions, personal 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 a public distribution brochure summarizing future development policies, future issues crucial to the village and a copy of the Future Land Use map of the village. This document will be used to promote the Comprehensive Plan Update as an easily recognized decision making tool for both government and private sector use.
WHAT OTHER COMMUNITIES SHOULD KNOW
Almost very elected official has heard the advise on how important a current plan is when defending legal challenges to land use decisions in court. However there are a number of other benefits, including:
1. To make a Comp Plan work, elected ans appointed officials must make a consensus effort to recognize the role of the plan and use it.
2. The preparation of the plan must include a wide range of interests and the maximum number of of participants to assure a broad spectrum of decisions makes and community leaders feel ownership with the plan.
3. The document must be published in a mass distribution format which is easily read by the general public.
4. Elected officials and community leaders must take positive action to promote awareness of the Comp Plan and its use 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 like and dislikes in terms of new development within the community.
6. Elected officials and staff should always include reference to the Comp 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 Comp Plan ands a guide for decision making.
Dave Niemeyer, Village Manager sums up the feelings of elected and appointed officials plus village 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 time. Homewood officials always have a vision for the future, our Comprehensive Plan Update will serve its intended purpose in the future.”