Some thoughts on planning recommendations

I have written much about issues in Olmsted County Planning. The recommendations in the Stantec report are pretty spot in and similar to what I have been advocating for I hope that county staff will act on these recommendations.

My comments on this:

My fear is the same people that have ignored community planning issues for years will continue to do so. We especially need the county board, county admin, and city admin to actively get behind addressing the recommendations. The council has been actively funding long term planning for the last few years.

In the shorter term:

  1. I have been advocating for a new comprehensive plan for more than 10 years. I was a driver in getting the new plan initiated, I am not happy with the delays. I want in implemented and not watered down this year.
  2. I support immediately initiating work to update land use and zoning concurrent to the comprehensive plan work. I asked for this last year, and the majority of the council & staff did not agree with me so not progress has been made.
  3. Additional staff as well as a pay scale to attract and retain talent is needed immediately, I expect significant improvements in county staffing in 2017. This along with the new administration position should help with communications. I would like to see a staff member with urban design experience and training to be hired immediately to address the games being played by some developers on incentive & restricted developments. A full fee structure to support needed skills can be developed in the next 6 months.

In the mid term:

  1. First we could actually give the already existing neighborhood plans some more teeth while augmenting the plans with DMC guidelines. Additional plans should be developed for all core neighborhoods, preserving the historic residential cores. In addition similar planning should be done for future transit node locations and park & ride sites.
  2. We should start adding long term planning staff as early as January 2017, how do we pay for it? Just look at how much we are spending on consultants to get us through our current messes. Prevention is always cheaper than cure.
  3. The neighborhoods have taken the brunt of the failure to plan and engage the community. Starting with the core neighborhoods, they should have dedicated staff discussing issues and bring concerns early into the development process
  4. I’m not sure if we need to break up the city / county model. I would be fine with that, but honestly the county doesn’t do anything that is very complex outside to the Rochester urban service area. For me the key is that the city needs a mechanism to insure we have the staff to meet community planning needs. We have not during my time in public office. This is largely because of county staffing decisions and a pay scale that bleeds talent.

From the Stantec Report:


Short Term:

  1. Complete and Adopt the Comprehensive Plan
    The Community needs the Comprehensive Plan now. We don’t fully understand what is delaying the process, but whatever the reasons are, they need to be resolved. If ever there was a Comprehensive Plan that should be designed to be a living document, it is the ROPD Comprehensive Plan.
    The Plan should include clear, actionable and measurable goals and policies related to every issue identified above. The Implementation chapter of the document should establish procedures to ensure that the document is reviewed periodically and updated regularly.
    Special area studies and neighborhood plans should be designed to be incorporated into the Comprehensive Plan so they carry the full policy support of the Plan.
  2. Prepare and adopt new land use and zoning regulations and amend whatever policies are necessary to implement the Comprehensive Plan
    This must be a top priority and it is something that often gets delayed. Once the new Comprehensive Plan is adopted everyone from elected officials, through department heads, to partner organizations should understand that all decisions must be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan. To establish the authority to implement the Comprehensive Plan, the zoning ordinance and other ordinances must be legally adopted. Until they are adopted, the County and the City are in a nebulous place from a regulatory standpoint.
  3. Add staff capacity with priority given to the following skills, talent and experience:
    1. Current, Day to Day Planning
      The volume of applications of all kinds will increase. The ROPD will lose years of experience and institutional memory in the near future through retirements. The Planning Department needs a Succession Plan to take advantage of the time to train new staff while experienced staff is still available to share knowledge and experience.
      Unfortunately planners who aspire to processing day to day applications and permit requests are a bit of a rarity. It can seem like a thankless, never-ending exercise. This is also fundamentally reactive work and most planners are naturally predisposed to choosing to be proactive and be involved in a creative process. Nevertheless, this will always be at the core of the ROPD’s responsibilities and it is work that requires knowledge, skill and experience.It may be beneficial over time to cross-train staff members and rotate people out of day to day planning into special projects from time to time. Enlisting Department staff in the development of this system could boost morale and improve job satisfaction.
    2. Communications and City Engagement – Excellent and timely communication skills will be an essential asset to the Planning Department. Change is hard, but major, rapid change is harder. The City needs robust and strategic communication resources. Several of the people interviewed spoke of the need for the Planning Department to “tell their story”. In some of the areas where respondents gave poor performance marks, people suggested that part of the problem was that they simply didn’t know what the ROPD has done and is doing to respond to past concerns.Stakeholder engagement is critically important and to be effective it has to be proactive and ongoing. That takes capacity and commitment. The Planning Department has an essential role in engaging neighbors and other stakeholders in advance of actual development projects.
    3. Urban Design
      While a lot of excellent urban design work has been done in the City, much more remains to be done. Neighborhood plans, special area studies, the development of design standards and the engagement of neighborhoods in this work will all be necessary. The Planning Department might be able to find and recruit an individual with the urban design talent to conduct the work described above. To really bring this capability to scale and be effective it would almost certainly necessitate hiring a team of professionals with the skills from multiple disciplines.
      It may not be feasible to fund the establishment of an Urban Design team within the ROPD in the near future. Instead a better strategy might be to hire skilled project managers with the ability to manage consultants with the expertise and capabilities to accomplish specific projects. Several of those interviewed did speak of the need for someone within the ROPD with the talent and authority to make urban design decisions and effectively communicate design objectives. This individual would function in a review capacity, but with sufficient credentials and authority to represent the City’s design interests through interaction with private sector developers, architects, urban designers, landscape architects and engineers.
    4. Develop and implement systems to finance planning services
      There are many excellent examples of fee structures at local governments that “pass through” the costs for planning and review expenses. These fees need to be fair and reasonable and directly related to the costs incurred reviewing a specific project or a pro-rata share of a planning study or activity that created the opportunity for a proposed development.
      The specifics of this recommendation can take many forms, but the underlying principle is that planning is an investment that creates value. It is fair and reasonable for those benefitting from that created value to pay their fair share of the cost. This can support the costs associated with hiring staff. In the case of special studies and neighborhood plans the City may have to finance the investment, but this investment can be repaid with interest over time. Again, there are numerous examples where this strategy has been successful.

Mid-Term Recommendations:
1. Prepare and adopt neighborhood plans and special area studies.
These should be prioritized to the extent possible in response to the best assumptions about where development projects will be coming next. The neighborhoods and surrounding property owners should be fully engaged in these studies.
Regardless what the zoning district is called the model we recommend is patterned after traditional Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning. The planning study will result in the completion of a Concept Plan and this is the point at which the land will be zoned. The neighborhood and other stakeholders should be fully engaged in this part of the project, including the development of design standards and any other essential conditions of approval.
Once the Concept Plan is approved and the zoning is in place any development that is fully consistent with the Plan and meets all of the design standards and other conditions can be approved administratively. This will have the effect of significantly streamlining the subsequent development review and approval process and it sends clear messages to developers regarding expectations. They are able to incorporate these expectations in to their pro forma as they assess development feasibility.
2. Add staff with long range planning skills and an expertise in sustainability and resilience
There are those who believe that long range planning is a luxury and it is dispensable. In fact it is an investment that will pay for itself many times over. It is essential to protect both public and private investment over time and that happens best when current decisions are made in the framework of a long range view.
3. Work toward establishing a Planning Department liaison in every neighborhood
The Planning Department liaison will be the identified point person and will attend their neighborhood’s meetings. They will establish strong working relationships and be the voice of the ROPD, explaining issues and communicating news and policy. They should become the go to source for information and the first point of contact as issues are raised and concerns are voiced. Depending on the level of activity some staff members may be able to serve as a liaison to more than one neighborhood.
4. Migrate away from the Joint County/City Department Model
Just like the old Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code the joint department structure may have run its course. There are obviously numerous logistical, organizational and cost implications associated with a change like this. It would be distracting and unnecessarily disruptive to make an abrupt change, however an orderly, staged migration could be a reasonable and effective way to make the shift to establishing distinct planning departments at the County and the City. In the near term this situation could be addressed by establishing distinct divisions within the Department, but in the long run we are confident that both the County and the City would be better served by having their own separate planning departments. This idea was actually expressed by several of the people interviewed. It wasn’t grounded in criticism as much as in the simple recognition that the County and City’s planning needs are already very different and the gap is growing wider every day. The nature of the planning issues facing the City are also completely different than in the rest of the County and the disparity between the needs of each jurisdiction will only grow as the Destination Medical Center and associated downtown planning investments continue to progress.

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