Function of a county planning commission and department: Part 1

In an era of increased need for coordination, cooperation, and regionalization between local governments, the role of county planning is much more important. Public involvement is a major tool for three successful county planning programs.

Function of a county planning commission and department: Part 1

What does a county planning commission do anyway, aren’t they just duplicating municipal (city, village, township) planning commissions? This is a question that has come up in some counties – especially when the county does not administer a zoning ordinance. Coordination and getting people throughout the county to work together is a major emphasis. This article focuses on involving people and building working relationships in a county.

Recently a meeting hosted by Networks Northwest (formerly the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments, state planning region ten, now Michigan Prosperity Region 2) addressed this question. Speakers from three county planning departments focused on county planning activities Sept. 16, 2015. None of these counties have county zoning, but each places a strong emphasis on coordinating and working with local governments.


Number of Cities

Number of Villages

Number of Townships

Grand Traverse County




Leelanau County

(part of one)



Manistee County




“Local government tends to be myopic” John Sych, AICP, Director, Grand Traverse County Planning and Development Department said.

When Grand Traverse County started work on the new county master plan, Sych explained, the county planning commission recognized local government planning was very good at what they did, and were experts for their local community. So the county planning commission asked the 119 municipal government planning commissioners to be the major contributors for the development of the new plan for Grand Traverse County. That local participation (right from the very start of the planning process) and work from Grand Vision and other surveys became the basis for the new plan.

The county planning commission met with each local government planning commission at least once, and often multiple times.

Sych said it would be very difficult for a planning commission to do the types of activities all three counties reported doing in this article without professional planning staff. With no staff it is a very big challenge.

“A planning commission is not set up to be doing staff work,” Sych said. It is an advisory and a policy making body. There are some things that might accomplish a little bit: scheduling combined planning commission meetings, to keep a light shining on planning issues. But until resources can be put behind those efforts not much can be expected.

Manistee County is currently working on a county-wide parks and recreation plan, Rob Carson, County Planner, Manistee County Planning Department, said. To do this the county planning commission created a “leadership team.” That team consists of elected officials and planning commission members from each municipality and other individuals from civic organizations, and other government agencies.

One of the powers of any planning commission is its ability to create committees – including committees who’s membership are not from the planning commission. This gives a planning commission’s committee the ability to be set up many different ways such as Manistee’s leadership council. Also members of such committees can consist of experts, in a topic without having to worry about residency and other such issues.

Manistee County’s big accomplishment was local officials talking to each other, and collaborating on projects such as the parks and recreation plan. That leadership team will continue past that project for other initiatives in the county in the future. The county planning commission also meets, three to four times a year, jointly with different municipal planning commissions.

Working in this inclusive way, and being able to sit around the same table has worked in Manistee, Carson said. Within a couple years the trust was apparent. The phone starting ringing in the county office much more frequently seeking advice, help and assistance.

“Leelanau County has an annual joint meeting with all local governments” Trudy Galla, AICP, Planning & Community Development Director, Leelanau County Planning Department said. The county planning commission also hosts an annual planning and zoning training event each year. A committee of the planning commission picks the hot topics for the county for that year, and proposes training to cover those issues. The county planning commission reviews the recommendations and then proceeds to organize the training.

The annual meeting also results in local government officials knowing each other, knowing county planning staff and commission members, and helps maintain that dialoged.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information.

Part two of this article presents what other activities these county planning commission do.

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