Planning staff reports can be better and should be.

Staff reports for planning and zoning cases are often poorly done and missing critical information. A recent study recommends ways to improve staff reports.

Schindler explaining staff reports at the Land Policy Institute/MSU Extension

Schindler explaining staff reports at the Land Policy Institute/MSU Extension "Zoning Administrator Certification" class on Feb. 20, 2013.

Planners and zoning administrators can produce better staff reports for zoning cases. In some instances, improvement can be simple organizational changes and increased use of graphics.

A staff report is the main way planners and zoning administrators provide their professional findings and assessments about land use issues. These reports should be the mainstay for each zoning case presented to the planning commission or zoning board of appeals for action. A recent study, “The Unexamined Staff Report” (2016), published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, conducted an assessment of staff reports prepared by 94 municipalities in 41 states, ranging in population from 2,500 to over 1 million. Very little research or writing has been done about what makes a good or effective staff report. This study reviewed past literature in addition to performing its own assessment (Duncan Erley [1976] Planning Advisory Service No. 321, APA; Stuart Meck and Marya Morris [2004] Zoning Practice, APA; Meck et al. [2005] training package, APA; and Susan Swift [2014] Planning, APA, and PAS QuickNotes No. 30). Note: access to most of these links will require membership in the American Planning Association.

Frequent planning staff report shortcomings

Each study came to similar conclusions (Erley, Meck Morris): Most staff reports included some technical background but lacked critical, analytical information. Consistently, reports were found that:

  • DO NOT follow advice on making the report more accessible with better organization and graphics
  • DO NOT provide a rationale for recommendations (or no recommendations offered)
  • DO NOT reference the master plan
  • DO NOT reference adjacent community plans
  • DO NOT adequately analyze project’s impact on basic public facilities
  • DO NOT use maps, photos, graphics or layout features to a great degree

In addition, staff report organization is illogical, mixing facts with subjective information, and not written to engage planning commissioners.

In defense of planning and zoning staff, the study notes that deadlines, lack of time, and lack of resources often results in reports being done in a rush with no proofreading. Also, it is easier and faster to write a longer document than taking the additional time to be concise.

Using an appropriate evaluation tool

Authors of the study, Bonnie Johnson and Ward Lyles, associate and assistant professors of urban planning at University of Kansas, suggest there should be a standard template for staff reports in a community. This is easy to do with word processing or other desktop publishing software. With a standardized template, the reader will always know where to look for wanted information, and the writer won’t forget to include something. As a result, reports will cover all needed topics in a consistent way. Johnson and Lyles note a similar list of good staff report characteristics in the literature reviewed.

This study developed a Staff Report Evaluation Tool (SRET) which was used to review the 94 staff reports. By and large, the same shortcomings were found. Johnson and Lyles write, “We believe that planners can quickly create higher-quality staff reports by making small changes:

  • DO add summary cover sheets
  • DO reference and curate maps
  • DO annotate photographs
  • DO use bullet points and sidebars
  • DO provide comprehensive checklists of the impact of the application on public facilities, including school, pedestrian, bicycle and transit facilities
  • DO justify any recommendations
  • DO publicize the date of the next public hearing

Johnson and Lyles also advocate for municipalities to evaluate existing staff reports by using SRET or a similar process. They also encourage one to ask the planning commission and zoning board of appeals members what they want, what they need, and how the information should be organized in a staff report.

Elements of a good staff report

A staff report should be broken into three parts: (1) background with descriptive information about the applicant and the project’s surrounding area; (2) analysis about if the project meets requirements of the plan, ordinance(s), and public facility capacities; and (3) a recommendation with reasons. Erley had a similar outline but also advocated using a consistent format/template, careful to separate facts from analysis, and the use of short words and sentences avoiding pompous high-toned jargon. Swift also suggested a staff report be done in three parts using three Cs: (1) Compliance with regulations, (2) consistency with plans, and (3) compatibility with surrounding properties.

Swift, Johnson and Lyles strongly advocated the use of maps, captioned photos, graphics, checklists, coversheets, detailed appendixes, and page layouts with varying fonts, headers, sidebars, page numbering, and table of contents to make it easier for the reader.

Johnson and Lyles’ SRET includes the following list of staff report content (Note: Brackets were added for information specific to Michigan):

Background:

Action requested, date of application, applicant identification, property owner identification, author of the report, date and location of the meeting/hearing, statement of sending the public notices, parcel(s) identification (legal description), all previous land use decisions for the parcel(s), current zoning, site description, [inventory of nonconformities within the parcel(s)], current land use, surrounding land uses, surrounding zoning, and [deadline for a decision if applicable]. 

Analysis:

Zoning and other regulations; action requested relative to regulations; [master] plan (goals, [objectives, strategies,] policies, principles, plan maps); adjacent community [master] plans; federal, state, regional, county, [tribal, special area] plans; public facilities capacity (road, water sanitary sewer, storm sewer, floodplains, parks, schools, transit, pedestrian, utilities, bicycle); summary comments by other government agencies (and detail in an appendix); summary of public comment (and original submissions in an appendix); and information missing or yet to be submitted by the applicant. 

Recommendations:

Staff’s recommendation of action to take; justification for staff recommendation [the reasons]; [staff’s recommendation of findings of fact]; recommended conditions of approval [with justification tied back to ordinance standards]; options for the commission’s or appeals board’s consideration.

Note: Some communities do not want staff to provide a recommendation. Some communities expect a draft motion to be prepared in the staff report to approve, another to disapprove, and maybe another to approve with conditions. 

Johnson, Lyles, Meck and Morris all suggested a coversheet be included in staff reports. The coversheet should include the project name, case number, action requested, current zoning, existing land use, and a summary or abstract of the staff report. In Michigan, one might also wish to include a deadline for a decision and a one sentence summary of the recommendation, if any. The coversheet is prepared for the planning commissioner or zoning appeals board member who does not open the packet until he or she is at the meeting.     

Finally, Johnson and Lyles suggest that six to 10 pages is the optimum length of a staff report. In the study, the staff reports rated poorly were five pages or shorter. This suggests “there may be a minimum length for a staff report to have the capacity to address core items while also adding other recommended elements.” Reports over 10 pages long do not mean they are better. Clarity can be accomplished with short sentences and words. The balance is providing the needed information in a short enough form to be useful to the layperson. 

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. MSU’s Land Policy Institute, in cooperation with MSU Extension, provides a Zoning Administrator Certificate Program each year. This eight session, 3-hour program has one class with a focus on staff report design and preparation. Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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