Does your personal opinion matter as a planning commissioner?

Developing Complete streets provide for a variety users to coexist in the public right-of-way.

How important is your personal opinion when you are a planning commissioner? Should you vote your conscience on projects? What are the implications for such decisions? I wish I could say that the answer is a strong no for the first two questions, but that would not be correct. The answer can be found in an examination of the third question that focuses on implications of actions. It is what I would prefer to call the action and reaction question. Planning and zoning decisions can have serious actions and reactions. In some cases, depending on the project type, such decisions impact thousands and even millions of dollars in development and redevelopment costs. Even those cases that do not involve huge sums of money can be just as controversial as the issue of who has ultimate say on how land will be used plays out in these processes.

As a planning director, I had the experience of working with a small community in southeastern Michigan. A local developer submitted an application for a rezoning. The rezoning was requested to allow the developer to increase the number of single family units on a project. The proposed plan basically decreased the lot size. The single family residential use was the same as the current district. The homes proposed for the site were similar in size and scale to existing homes on the adjacent properties. The project was consistent with the city’s master plan and would provide badly needed new homes for a community with a large, aging housing inventory. This project sounds like a win for the developer as well as the community. However, some local residents opposed the project and argued that the land should be maintained as forest land. The opposition to the project made some planning commissioners to think long and hard about recommending approval of the project to the city council.

Communities are not required to rezone land if they have a reasonable justification for the current zoning. Commissioners were pressured from those residents supporting the project as well as those who opposed it. In the end, two of the commissioners stated that he had to vote their conscience and vote no on the rezoning. A majority of the planning commissioners voted to approve the rezoning. In this case, the more appropriate action by the two commissioners would have been to provide their disapproval of the project based on their findings. They could have argued that the current rezoning encouraged larger lot development and the location of the property was the best location in the city for such development of occur. Therefore they could not support the rezoning of the property.

The moral of the story is that such cases have a lot of grey areas and the correct decision is not always obvious. However, when volunteers serve on boards and commissions that represent their community, they should try to make the decision that is in the best interest in that community. And that their votes of consciences should be grounded in city codes and regulations as much as possible. In the end, the goal should be to protect and preserve the health and welfare of the community.

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