What’s Your Plan?

So where are you in your planning efforts?

When talking with clients about development or zoning issues in their community, we tend to point out how useful a planning study would be to help determine their community’s best next steps.  Yet, we often hear statements concerning the cost of “doing planning” or that they’ve already “done a plan,” usually along the lines of…

“We can’t afford to complete a full comprehensive plan,”

“We already have a comprehensive plan,” or

“Our comprehensive plan is only three years old”

The assumption seems to be that planning is expensive and that it exhaustive. But, planning is not so cut and dry… do or don’t.  There is not a right or wrong amount of planning that always needs to be completed to be useful.  Planning is about understanding your options, choosing the right path, and maximizing the benefits of coordinated actions while heading down this path.  We believe that planning can be customized to meet the needs of any community’s situation (see our Six Tips to Developing a Successful Comprehensive Plan).

Being part of an engineering and planning firm, we often compare planning to a traditional capital project that communities undertake.  The typical capital project advances through several stages including planning, design and construction.  One such example would be the need to replace a bridge.  First, the administration determines that the bridge is unsafe for public travel and requires replacement.  The engineering team sets forth on a planning exercise to determine a type of structure needed to accommodate traffic volumes and loads then moves forward with preparing design plans and construction documents.  A contractor is hired to complete the final construction phase of the project.  After a period of time, construction is complete, the bridge is opened to traffic and our journey is complete.  Yeah!  So your typical capital project has a beginning and an end.

Capital Project Process

Now, let’s take this same community that is faced with development or zoning issues or maybe the revitalization of their downtown (…just Take A Deep Breath and Begin).  Clearly, similar to a capital project, these types of issues also require some degree of planning to help identify the right steps to take to meet the community’s desired goals.  Yet, our experience has shown that there are two common misconceptions:

  1. that a planning study needs to be “comprehensive” which requires a big budget,
  2. or that because there is an existing “comprehensive plan” the planning phase has already been completed!

Let’s look at these two situations.

If a community never begins a planning process because they fear their limited budget won’t allow them to conduct a “comprehensive” (i.e. detailed) study, then they will be far worse in the long run than if they proceeded with a planning effort that matched their budget limitations.  Sometimes, an initial, broad brush (i.e. not so detailed) planning study that may fit the current budget can help get a project started and moving in the general “right direction.”

Beginning the planning process is much like laying the foundation to a building.  With the foundation in place, the planning process can continue to build upon this foundation and subsequent stages of planning efforts can progress.  As tasks are accomplished or as budgets will allow, the community can continue with specific planning efforts and can successfully proceed down the right path.

Comm Planning Process

The same can be said for a community that has already completed a comprehensive plan.  Often a community conducts a one to two year planning process with extensive public participation and a formal adoption process, – and maybe a big budget -, and voilà the comprehensive plan is finished (and it’s typical to say: “it took a lot of effort and we’re not going to do this again for another 10 years!”).

But often the comprehensive planning process, because of its breadth, does not include detailed, perhaps, neighborhood or area based policies and implementation steps.  For example, a comprehensive plan may note that further studies are needed, such as a detailed assessment of the downtown area to help develop appropriate design guidelines.  Thus, the comprehensive plan becomes the foundation for a community to continue their planning efforts.

Likewise, planning policies and strategies developed today are based on what we know now, but we may find that our assumptions of the future are off – the housing crisis of 2008 comes to mind.  Therefore, as recommendations of the plan are implemented and completed, or as market influences change, new issues may arise.   When this happens, regardless of how recently the current comprehensive plan was completed, there is tremendous benefit to the community to regroup and reassess to see if a new direction makes sense.

So where are you in your planning efforts?

Give us a call, we’d be happy to discuss the road to a better future.

Kristin HopkiHopkinsK-blogns, AICP, Principal Planner

Kristin has over 27 years of experience working with a wide range of communities (large, small, urban, and rural) on land use planning initiatives, including 10 years in the public sector working for the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission.  She has developed a unique combination of expertise in research, land use planning and preparation of zoning and subdivision development regulations to implement plan policies, as well as community collaboration, whether through working with planning commissions, advisory committees and/or elected officials.  Kristen can be reached at (440) 530-2320 or khopkins[at]ctconsultants.com.

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