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.