This is an update to my second post (Tips To Avoid Failure In Comprehensive Plans) now that my town is ready to adopt their updated 2020 Comp Plan.
This is written from two perspectives, first as the Town Planning Director from 2011-2014, after being on the town staff since 2008, working on downtown revitalization implementation. This gave me the opportunity to assist the previous planning director on the 2008 update.
The second perspective is as a citizen, town resident, with many years of planning/community experience at the town, regional and state levels.
In Maryland, each county and municipal comp plan must have specific elements and must be updated every ten years.
The town initiated the update process with a Kick off meeting , asking attendees to participate in a series of exercises :
1. Branding Exercise
2. Live/Work Map
3. Opportunities VS Challenges Exercise
4. Objectives and Principles Exercise
The results were then complied and posted on separate Comp Plan page on the Town’s website.
Next a Request of Interest (RFI) was posted, requesting firms to submit a statement of their services and interest in this project. Interested firms attended Q&A session with the Planning staff to clarify the scope of services and answer questions. As a result, a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) was posted. Ten consultant firms submitted proposals. This was a significant change from the 2008 update, done by in-house planning staff, with assistance from the other departments.
Using a scoring system, the staff rated the proposals and made a recommendation to the Planning Commission. They in turn endorsed the staff recommendation to the Town Council. This selection was approved and the selected firm received a notice to proceed in December 2018.
The process officially started in July with evening listening sessions, ending in October, 2018. The public provided input about key elements of the plan, to include Municipal Growth, Downtown Development, Transportation and Economic Development. The results were then posted on the Comp Plan website.
A Steering Committee of citizens ( I was a member), business owner,s major employers (local hospital, Board of Education, fuel distributor) and representatives from County staff (Planning, Economic Development – appropriate as the town is the County seat and a major employer) was formed and met to review the initial draft on the new Plan . Comments and feedback were provided resulting in two revised drafts – August 2019 and January 2020.
The January 2020 draft was then submitted for a required 60 day review period tothe State and the County, as required y law. Their respective comments were then incorporated into a May 2020 revised draft and then presented to the Planning Commission for their review. They held a virtual public hearing on July 7, due to COVID-19. The Plan was recommended for approval to the Town Council. Interesting to note there were no speakers signed up to testify and the Planning Commission denied a request to keep the public record open for an additional week.
The recommended 2020 Plan will be introduced to the Town Council, the final approval authority (5 members – the Mayor and 4 Council persons, all part-time), on August 24, with a public hearing (virtual) scheduled for September 14.
Stuff beyond control
When the update process started, no one could have anticipated the COVID pandemic, much less the devastating impact on the Town’s staff and their workflow. The Town Hall is stilled closed and the staff like, many others, had to adjust the working remotely.
The good news (if there was any!) was that the update process was well underway, with most of the public outreach completed. So when the pandemic really hit, the staff and consultant were in the writing phase.
The downside was lack of public participation at the July Planning Commission hearing, This is understandable, but see the Not so Good comments.
The revised plan was prepared by a consulting firm. Nothing against the staff, but having an outside perspective provides needed objectivity while adding planning/best practices from other communities.
Good use of listening sessions prior to actual writing of the plan,providing an opportunity for community input and perspectives while educating the staff and consultant team about the community – their needs, desires and concerns. They got to know the community better.
The Steering Committee meetings were also a good and a needed technique to hear community reaction to the initial draft Plan. The staff and consultants then heard directly from major stakeholders about recommendations and needed revisions.
The Planning staff is much improved, professional and better organized from previous 2008 update process (that includes me!). They had more knowledge and were better focused in organizing and executing the process. This includes organizing the listening sessions, the Steering Committee, managing the consultant contract, effective incorporation of comments into the draft Plan and finally leading the Planning Commission through the process. They are to be commended for their work, made that much harder due to COVID.
The Not So Good
Any plan is a snapshot in time, not in control of events, dated the day after approval. As the 2020 plan moves to certain adoption, the Town is at the confluence of events beyond their control – the long term implications of the pandemic and a flurry of development activity. This includes possible construction start of a 30 year old residential annexation project with 3,200 units at build out (10 years?). Next are two new annexation requests, the first a 800 acre parcel with over 3,000 units, with a 20-30 year build out and a smaller one (175 residential units).
While no plan can anticipate the future in precise terms, my concern is the new Plan lacks a real vision of what the Town can be. Do they want to be just another “anywhere USA” or a unique place, protecting their values, history and environment?! This is not advocating for NOT IN MY BACKYARD (NIMBY) or the opposite (YES IN MY BACKYARD – YIMBY), but a place with standards and a regulatory process protecting the community’s character. There should a be response other than just accepting the way it’s always been, the status quo, given bad past practices – strip commercial centers along the major highways, at the expense of downtown businesses, lack of sidewalks, lack of housing diversity and affordability.
While the public participation process was a significant improvement over the 2008 update, it was still somewhat limited – we have to do it, so let’s get it over with. Yes, there were listening sessions and a Steering Committee, but once they stopped meeting, there was no outreach until the announcement of the Planning Commission public hearing. This results is a top down plan, written by consultant, but not necessarily really reflecting citizen wants and needs. While the pandemic certainly was a key factor in limited attendance at the July 2020 Planning Commission hearing, the required public hearing legal notice was delayed by the local paper and as a result, was eventually posted in a much larger metro paper. In addition, a request to keep the public record open for an additional week for comments was denied by the Planning Commission.
Many other communities, including smaller ones, are leveraging GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technology . Social media is also is used as well. This results in a more robust, continuous and interactive public participation process. This can also be used for multiple processes from budget review to simple polls to know and understand the pulse of the community.
A Comp Plan is not effective if there is no implementation. It must be THE policy document guiding all decisions, not gathering dust on the shelf. A Capital Improvement (CIP) is an effective implementation tool, using the budget to plan needed projects identified in the Comp Plan – road improvements, water/sewer, sidewalks, parks/recreation.
The Town initiated a CIP two years ago, during their annual January retreat in advance of the fiscal year (FY, starting July 1, ending June 30) budget. While a good start, the 2020 Comp Plan provides an opportunity to refine and further synchronize the current CIP, reflecting its policies and recommendations.
Another implementation tool is the Zoning Ordinance. The current ordinance is dated and a patchwork of various changes over the years. There were major changes over the past two years. While perhaps needed and at the time some urgency for amendment, the zoning is again dated and out of syn with adoption of the new Plan. It doesn’t reflect the significant changes in the community, new planning techniques and thinking about how places grow and develop. This is urgently needed in response to COVID-19.
The Town Council pubic virtual hearing is September 14. I will testify and provide a detailed comment letter for the record. This will include my observations here and specific comments, with page references. I will urge the Council to keep the record open for more public comments. This is too important, the stakes too high to close the record and then vote to approve.
I will report back what happened.