Planning commissions may not have jurisdiction, but can still have advocacy role

There are a number of areas where local governments do not have jurisdiction, but a local government or its planning commission can still prepare testimony for submission at public hearings and during public comment periods.

A planning commission for townships and counties cannot regulate oil and gas drilling, completion, operation, abandonment and location of oil and gas wells and other wells associated with oil and gas exploration through zoning planning commissions. Cities and villages are also limited in that authority, but not as clearly.

This review of local authority over oil and gas was covered in the Michigan State University (MSU) Extension article “Can Local Governments Regulate Oil and Gas Development?

There is nothing to prevent the planning commission from assuming an advocacy role on any issue. The planning commission can prepare and present testimony at public hearings, scoping activities, etc. in response to various state and federal agencies (just as they can participate at a hearing held by a township, city, village or another county).

While it can be done, some thought should be given to the wisdom of doing so. There could be possible political consequences, as well as compromising a planning commission’s image of professionalism and neutrality.

The duty of the planning commission would be to handle those reviews as they handle infrastructure reviews (MCL 125.3861), and how it reviews other matters against the adopted master plan (saying nothing, if the plan is silent on the topic). A planning commission should use the same standards for advocating and commenting to other agencies as they would expect from individuals commenting during their own public hearings. In other words, it is not good enough to come out “for” or “against” something, comment should be fact-based and provide information that aids decision-making.

If the planning commission choses to take on an advocacy role, it is important to remember it must act as a group. That means holding all discussion at a public meeting about what position is taken and how it is worded, including final approval of the testimony to be submitted. The commission can appoint a spokesperson to deliver it, if it is not simply provided in writing. However no one person, member of the planning commission, its staff or anyone else can proceed to make a submission in the name of the Commission on their own.

A planning commission should be on notification mailing lists of various state and federal agencies, so that notices of public comment periods are received by the planning commission for various permit applications, state/federal agency proposed projects, etc. It is not always easy to know of all such lists, let alone being on all of them. But some obvious lists would be U.S. Corps of Engineers, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Michigan Department of Transportation, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

It would be in this manner that a planning commission might find itself commenting on oil and gas activity. For notice about oil and gas activity permits, there is no mailing list one can be on. But the DEQ Supervisor of Wells is required by law to send notice to the county clerk, who is supposed to place them on file for public viewing. Actually, the Clerk’s office is often the “office of record,” and many laws require notices be sent to a county and/or municipal Clerk’s office.

Not only is it important to be on various agency mailing lists, it is important to have a system for review of notices received by the Clerk. A system needs to be set up, so the planning commission is informed of additions to that Clerk’s file: e.g., how that internal communication would take place.

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