Whither the Comprehensive Plan?

It’s been a long haul. The current Planning Commission, of which I am a member, began the revision of Northfield’s Comprehensive Plan two years ago, in the summer of 2006. Consultant ACP Visioning & Planning was hired at the end of November of that year, and we all thought we’d have the Plan and the associated Land Development Regulations (zoning ordinances) revised by the end of 2007.

So why is it taking so long?

First, a disclaimer. I AM NOT SPEAKING FOR THE PLANNING COMMISSION OR CITY STAFF. I’m giving my interpretation of the events. Other commissioners and city staff will, undoubtedly, have a different view of things. I hope they chime in if they disagree.

There are several reasons the process has taken longer than anticipated. There are two revisions taking place in tandem – the Comprehensive Plan, and the Land Development Regulations. These are two separate documents, with the Comp Plan providing the overarching vision, and the Regs providing the specific ordinances controlling land use. The Comprehensive Plan was last revised in 2001. The overall vision expressed in the 2001 Plan is still relevant, but the intervening years have pointed out the need for some clarification. More significantly, the Land Development Regulations, which have evolved over a long period of time, have not been consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.

For instance, our Comp Plan may say “no coal plants next to elementary schools”, but if there is no specific, detailed ordinance that applies to that situation, or a conflict in the ordinances, a coal plant next to an elementary school might be legally permissible. (Pardon my hyperbolic example but I wanted to make a point without picking on anyone’s pet issue.)


Due to budgetary constraints, it was decided that the bulk of the consultants’ time should be spent on the Land Development Regs, which are highly technical, and that most of the Comp Plan revisions would be done in-house.

The Comp Plan revision process consisted of several public meetings as initially outlined in the project website northfieldplan.org; input on each chapter of the Plan from relevant City boards and commissions; and innumerable Planning Commission meetings and work sessions. The Planning Commission and city staff went through several false starts while revising the chapters of the Comprehensive Plan, which I believe was due almost exclusively to technical deficiencies in handling revision/version control. People who work in software or project management have tools and experience to enable them to handle this sort of collaborative work, but City Hall does not. The problems have been diagnosed and adequate solutions proposed, but the communication and procedural derailment added up to a significant delay on the chapter revisions.

Revising the Comprehensive Plan chapters is a cinch compared with the Land Development Regs. Northfield is moving to a hybrid code, which incorporates elements of traditional Euclidian zoning and form-based zoning. (Wonk digression: Visit the EPA website for a quick primer on different types of zoning codes.) This move is partly to reflect changes in best practices in planning and zoning, partly to better implement the Comprehensive Plan, and partly to streamline the process to be more business-friendly.

In the first part of this year, there was a series of miscommunications between City staff (planner Dan Olson and Community Development Director Brian O’Connell) and the consultants on the revision of the Land Development Regulations. Specifically, the consultant assigned to the project somehow did not get that Northfield was not trying to “fix” the already unwieldy patchwork of existing regulations with duct tape and baling wire; the City wanted to start almost from scratch and re-do the regulations from the ground up. Just about the time staff and the ACP principals were getting this sorted out, the consultant who was doing most of the work on this project left ACP.

To sum up, the delays have been caused by a combination of project complexity, miscommunication, and staff changes at ACP. I don’t believe there is any single (or even “most significant”) cause for the delay. It’s just one of those things.

So where are we now?

The Planning Commission hopes to have the final draft of the last outstanding chapter of the Comp Plan by the end of July. We were scheduled to work on it at a meeting tomorrow night, but staff informed us that they have not received the last edits back from ACP, so we’ve had to push that back. Again.

City staff are working with an advisory group consisting of representatives from the Planning Commission, builders, developers, architects, transportation experts, realtors et al to ensure that the new Land Development Regulations are usable and can be readily administered? administrated? by city staff. As of now the next meeting of this advisory group has not been scheduled; it will probably be in the fall to ensure it’s as well-attended as possible.

Once the Planning Commission and the advisory group have done their respective work, the Planning Commission will forward the Comprehensive Plan and the Land Development Regulations to the City Council for approval and adoption.

As staff and anyone who’s attended the Planning Commission meetings for the past several months knows, I’m extremely concerned about the readability and usability of the revised Comp Plan; the document’s final draft, which is not yet complete, needs some heavy-handed editing. And the Plan will be much more user-friendly if attention is paid to the layout and visual structure of the document, so it’s clear where to go for what information. But the implementation via the Land Development Regs is even more crucial, so it’s important to get them right.

This process has taken much longer and required more hours than anyone (commissioners, staff, consultants) had anticipated. But if it all results in clearer regulations and a more streamlined process for all concerned, it will have been worth it as the change is long overdue.

23 thoughts on “Whither the Comprehensive Plan?”

  1. Tracy, you are so right when you say:

    This process has taken much longer and required more hours than anyone (commissioners, staff, consultants) had anticipated. But if it all results in clearer regulations and a more streamlined process for all concerned, it will have been worth it as the change is long overdue.

    Of course, you’re preaching to the choir since your priorities sound very much like what I was saying about the Comp Plan adopted in 2001: make it user-friendly and closely tied to zoning ordinances. Back then, perhaps in the shadow of Target and other divisive development decisions, I only managed to convince the council to delay adopting the plan long enough for me to do really basic copy-editing. But as one city councilor admitted to me much later “we just wanted the Comp Plan to go away” and so it was adopted with little review and not much else happened.

    So my hopes for the 2008 Comp Plan and especially Land Use Regulations are very high. The Planning Commission, staff and other boards and commissions have been working very hard to review the plan, ensure consistency and eliminate confusions. I applaud you all.

    But I still have lingering fears that the longer the process is drawn out, the more likely it becomes that folks will want it all to just go away and the process will dribble off…

    Tracy, keep blogging to keep us informed and engaged as well as continuing your fine work with the PC on these issues.

  2. Thank you for your kind words, Betsey. I know that you know how much work this all is, and having it prolonged like this can be a recipe for burnout, so I appreciate the encouragement.

    I notified the other planning commissioners and city staff about my post, and hope they comment. If not, I’ll take their silence as assent to its veracity.

  3. June 24, 2008

    Mayor Lee Lansing
    City of Northfield
    801 Washington Street
    Northfield, MN 55057

    Dear Lee:

    As we have previously discussed, I am resigning from the Planning Commission. After five years of service with this group, it is time for me to devote my time and talent to other areas and initiatives.

    I had agreed to serve a second term in order to support the work on the revision of the Comprehensive Plan. It appears that this project is nearing its conclusion. It is now up to the Council, and concerned citizens, to insure that the final product reflects the values and visions of the community.

    It has been an honor and privilege for me to serve these five years with the other members of the Planning Commission. I believe it is one of the finest groups of Northfield citizens assembled in recent years to work for the good of the community. I believe that their processes and products are an example of the quality results that can come from committed and motivated volunteers.

    I appreciate your work to empower the citizens of Northfield. I hope that your efforts will be supported and enhanced by future generations of local leaders.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to serve.

    Sincerely yours,

    Ross Currier

  4. Yes, it’s a bummer to see Ross go, but he’s been very dedicated for the past five years, and it’s a pretty demanding level of commitment. I know Ross didn’t want to do another term when his expired at the end of 2006, but a few of his fellow commissioners pleaded and begged to see us through the Comp Plan revision process. Now that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I’m sure he felt that things could carry on without him. Which they will… but we’ll miss his dedication and his insights.

    (Tonight’s meeting – if it actually happens – will be a work session on the Comp Plan.)

  5. Thanks Ross!

    The PC can be a big commitment and even more so than usual with the Comp Plan – I think the current PC easily sets a record for more work sessions than any previous commission– so I suppose Ross might have other things he wants to get done besides land use planning policy. Still, Ross’s departure will leave a big hole in the PC’s expertise (and if I’m not mistaken, the PC’s Troublesome Trio is now down to a single Troublesome member)

    So with the land use regulations still to be finished and then actually using these newly honed tools to review applications…will all interested and experienced citizens please consider applying for Ross’s spot?

  6. Editorial in today’s Nfld News: It’s time to complete the comprehensive plan.

    … it’s over budget and months behind schedule. Still in the works: sending the document out for editing, another Planning Commission meeting to allow further revisions, a public information meeting and a public hearing, and another council work session where the document will yet again be discussed. The council is slated to adopt the plan on Oct. 20, nearly a full year later than planned.

  7. Evidently 40 people attended, Tracy. In last week’s Friday Memo, Dan Olson reported:

    There was an Open House this week to present the draft Comprehensive Plan to the public before its adoption. About 40 persons were in attendance at the Armory, and Staff and the Planning Commission heard positive comments on the Plan. Next Tuesday, the Commission will hold a public hearing on the Plan before it is sent to the City Council for adoption in October.

  8. Tracy –

    I believe that the Planning Commission is holding a Public Hearing on the final draft of the Comp Plan tonight.

    I’m wondering if there is an electronic version available so that citizens might review it before showing up at the meeting.

    Thanks much,

    Ross

  9. Ross, you beat me to the punch with your comment – I was going to add one myself encouraging people to attend the public hearing for final comment before the Plan goes to council.

    The planning commissioners don’t even have the final-final-FINAL draft in hand, to save the cost of making the mondo hard copies. I believe the PDF on the Projects section of the City website (download here)
    is the current version, less the typographical and grammatical edits.

  10. The Planning Commission seemed to have substantial differences amongst themselves and staff as to what constitutes a “plan”.

  11. I didn’t read the article in the Northfield News, but recently someone asked me “What’s going on?”

    At last week’s meeting, we had several items of business on the agenda which had to be attended to before we held the public hearing on the Comp Plan. The public hearing didn’t begin until about 8:40p. Hearing fairly extensive commentary and feedback by a dozen people, with a bit of discussion between, the public hearing lasted till approximately 10p.

    The Planning Commission wanted time for a thorough discussion after the public hearing, which the events that night did not allow. So it was decided to hold a special meeting tonight (10/7) for just that purpose, which should keep us on track for getting the Plan to the city council for their next work session as planned.

    And, speaking only for myself here, I really want to see the complete, edited version of whatever it is we’re recommending to the City Council. (At last week’s meeting, we did not have a copy and were working off August revisions.)

  12. Update after tonight’s special meeting: The Planning Commission approved the Comp Plan as edited/amended.

    At last night’s Council meeting, however, the Council asked that the Planning Commission review the new Transportation Plan and advise the Council if there are contradictions or inconsistencies between the Comp Plan and the new Transportation Plan. Council asked that the two plans be brought to Council concurrently after that review had taken place. The Planning Commission will be receiving a copy of the Transportation Plan shortly and we hope to review/discuss/make recommendations at our next regular meeting in October.

  13. Griff, thanks for the link. I laughed when I read this.

    No one from the Nfld News was present at the last Planning Commission meeting when news of the city council’s decision was brought to the Planning Commission (the night after the council tabled the decision on the transportation plan), and it’s clear that the NN has no real understanding of this process.

    The Planning Commission was directed by the City Council to review the Transportation Plan and point out any areas which may be in conflict with the new Comp Plan. This is totally appropriate behavior on the part of both bodies and is on the agenda the next Planning Commission meeting.

    I sure hope that’s fast enough for the Northfield News.

  14. Does “city hall” now own the newspaper … or what?
    The paper’s “slavishness” to city hall is once again proven by this accusatory editorial.

    Why does the NFNews go after the Planning Commission, given what was witnessed at the council meeting. My only explanation was that the reporter might have had to go to the bathroom , or outside for a smoke, or outside to have a meeting with someone in the parking lot, or what other possible excuse could there be?

    Here’s what happened (much shortened version):
    The staff (Engineer)gave a report on the transportation plan.
    Dixon Bond asked if the language and the maps in both the Trans plan and the Comp plan were congruent.
    Staff: “Yes”.

    Public comments were taken:
    A citizen urged tabling of Trans plan , at least until Comp plan adopted because of maps and language not coinciding; changing…
    A planning commissioner came to the mic and gave a comprehensive explanation of many points of conflict between the two sets.
    Another planning commissioner commented that she could not have any idea if the plans were consisten because she had seen three different reports; AND she had seen no final report.

    Council had some discussion.

    Staff (Interim Administrator) listed the steps of interaction with the PC.

    More discussion between Staff and council, as to timing of the presentation of the two plans.

    Dixon Bond’s summary: …intent is to make language consistent; P.C should not redebate what has been accomplished. IT is not PC’s role to change Trans plan… but to make CONSISTENT.

    Council’s vote: All aye, to postpone indefinitely (That doesn’t actually mean forever ; it means until date set)

    NOW … why did this editorial put the entire blame to the Planning Commission’s side of this issue?
    Why was the lack of congruity in the Staff’s and PC’s statements not noted?
    Why was the council’s position not noted?
    And again: why did this editorial put the entire blame to the Planning Commission’s side of the issue?

    Only one of two possibilities: either city hall (staff, not citizens) “owns” the newspaper, or the reporter was out of the room.

  15. Tracy: After accepting the New Comp Plan last night at the Council meeting, Concilor Pokorney made a rather strange statement, I thought. He said that the Comp Plan was not a legal document; it is my understanding that it is. There are all sorts of references to the primacy of a Comp Plan in state statutes , and our Charter says that the council may not make any rulings which conflict with the Comprehensive Plan.
    So, Tracy, how do you see that ‘legal’ aspect of the Comp Plan?

    Mr. Pokorney also said that the plan is a living historical document, a vision of how the citizens see their community … that, I thought, was a good statement within a societal context.

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