Planning commissions can turn opposition into support by planning ahead

Planning commissions can head-off opposition by taking a proactive approach to communications and public involvement surrounding a local planning effort.

Today, there seem to be just two types of planning commissions – those that have been in the crosshairs of public opposition and those that will be in the crosshairs of public opposition. Despite the best intentions to educate about planning and engage the public in meaningful dialogue about the future of the community, more often than necessary, planning efforts are framed as being ‘top-down’ or threatening to private property rights. 

Instead of accepting such opposition as the voice of the radical few, it will prove more beneficial in the long-run to reexamine our approach to local land use planning, including the language used, the individuals dubbed as stakeholders and the communications plan employed.  For instance, planners use too much jargon and do not always do a good job of communicating intent. We talk about development tools for reinvigorating downtowns, but we don’t necessarily talk about how those tools will help our communities be more competitive, grow more businesses or create better quality of life.

Mary Means and Elaine Clisham wrote an article in the July 2011 issue of Planning, the American Planning Association’s monthly publication, titled “Getting Ahead of the Opposition: How to control the conversation before the naysayers can.” The authors suggest:

  • Learn the “attitudinal topography” of the jurisdiction – In other words, really take the time to figure out what’s on resident’s minds and tailor messages about the planning effort (e.g. master plan update) to address those issues.
  • Begin with the end in mind – Don’t talk about the planning/zoning tools (the means), talk about the vibrant downtown that will retain and attract entrepreneurs (the ends to the means) and support it with research.
  • Put yourself in the “naysayer’s” shoes – Take the time to really understand all of the possible objections to the planning effort, then compile an offsetting list of benefits and responses.
  • Identify key friends and foes and figure out how to involve them in the planning process – Consider involving both as members of an advisory committee (MCL 125.3817(2) – “A planning commission may appoint advisory committees whose members are not members of the planning commission.”)
  • Bring local media into the fold – Proactively engage and meet with local writers to make sure they understand the goals and complexities of the planning process.
  • Choose words carefully – Avoid jargon and develop a “communications plan” before the first meeting, survey or map for the planning process.
  • Be consistent with the message – Distill the information in the plan down to a few easily understood talking points.
  • Don’t forget the elected officials – Remember that elected officials are a lay audience and spend time educating them on the plan/process (make sure they can recite the talking points).
  • Don’t try to do it yourself – Use available communications resources and have an advisory committee to help educate the community.
  • Find a way to involve communications and public relations professionals – If funding is an issue, consider adding a marketing/communications professional to the planning commission (this could be someone representing the ‘business’ or ‘tourism’ interests of the community – MCL 125.3815(3)).

In summary, planning commissions can head-off the opposition by taking a proactive approach to communications and public involvement surrounding a local planning effort. Remember, the Michigan Planning Enabling Act (Public Act 33 of 2008, as amended) only sets the minimum requirements for public involvement in the preparation of a master plan (see “The public hearing is the worst way to involve the public,” February 20, 2012, by Kurt Schindler). Conventional approaches, such as mail notifications and public hearings, come up short when it comes to engaging the entire community in a planning process.

For more information, visit the eXtensionPublic Participation in Planning” webpage.

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