reinstated by Governor Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania’s State Planning Board (SPB) was
mandated several duties. According to Alex Graziani, member of the appointed board, these
include (1) resolving conflict around development, infrastructure,
conservation, and land use planning, (2) forming policies for economic
development, and (3) improving governance at all levels. Alex participated with
about 20 other planning professionals and local government officials in a
recent LGA program entitled, “Relevant Recommendations: State Planning Board
Report Roundtable.” The 2006 State Planning Board
Report was discussed at this program held by the Local Government Academy at our
offices in the
In its report, the State Planning
Board addressed 4 issues: (1) “right-sizing” the provision of services to the
appropriate level of government, (2) consistency of planning and
implementation, (3)tax revenue and tax base sharing, and (4) barriers to boundary
The purpose of the LGA Roundtable was to focus on the planning recommendations and to gather input from Roundtable participants on the “good planning” aspects of the report. Participants reacted to the recommendations in the report and also brainstormed about potential policies that can be derived them that would best reflect the “Keystone Principles” and improve the quality of land use planning in the state.
Consistency of Planning and Implementation
Overall, participants recognized that there are consequences associated with the inconsistency of comprehensive planning and implementation, but that comprehensive plans must be flexible enough to accommodate “real world” situations. The discussion began with the proposed amendment to Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) section 303 c that would require consistency between comprehensive planning and implementing ordinances, such as zoning ordinances. Currently, comprehensive planning is not required to precede zoning, and the question of whether or not planning is consistent with land use was debated. Participants gathered that consequences of not requiring consistency are weak zoning and no limits on who can challenge consistency. Concerns were raised that zoning application would become a subjective, personal decision-making process, and that citizens would feel alienated because they would perceive developers as having free reign.
An amendment to MPC, House Bill 1525, has passed out of the Local Government Committee of the PA House of Representatives and into appropriations. The purpose of amending the MPC would be to protect developers and municipalities from frivolous attacks relating to the consistency of planning and zoning. The window of time to challenge consistency of ordinances and the comprehensive plan would be thirty days. However, the point was made that the amendment does not protect against bad ordinances.
It was mentioned
that because there are so many small governments in Pennsylvania made up mainly of volunteers
instead of professionals, a more flexible plan would allow them to address
challenges more efficiently. Participants debated the nature of
the comprehensive plan as a restrictive document versus an empowering document.
One participant raised the question that if the comprehensive plan was made
into a “hammer”, would it scare developers away from the municipality? The
consensus was that the plan was meant to be a set of guidelines, not a code, in
order to provide flexibility to respond to everyday life. One participant noted
that it would be much easier to change an ordinance than a comprehensive plan,
so a plan should leave enough room open for interpretation.
Conclusions: It would be useful for consistency between comprehensive plans and implementing ordinances to be recommended or even required in the MPC, but only when the plan is of high quality and regularly reviewed, amended, and in effect as a living, flexible document.
What is “Good Planning”?
The SPB recommendation to establish priorities in funding for “good planning” was reviewed, and participants first attempted to define what the phrase means. They included several aspects of planning into their definition of “good planning”, such as public participation, appropriate technical assistance, and focused goals. A suggestion for an incremental, modules strategy in planning was made with the explanation that “good planning” does not need to refer to comprehensive plans, but rather, the actions taken to form the plan.
Participants agreed that public participation is a necessary part in planning, and that public outreach is a professional skill. It was suggested that trained public participation planners to aid in strengthening civic engagement should be utilized, if not required, in the planning process. It was mentioned that often, citizens with “an axe to grind” are the ones who attend public meetings, but one participant offered the point that other means of participation can be made available besides meetings, such as online forums and suggestion kiosks. A focus on special interest groups was suggested in order to identify common interests in communities, and the overall consensus was that representation from all groups in the community is valuable.
A participant who has also worked as a consultant recommended that having a tight scope of work to address the “real issues” facing the community, as well as hiring consultants that can meet the needs of the community, are especially important when considering available funding for planning. A “cookie cutter” list of needs may not be applicable to every municipality, and may result in wasted efforts that do not get to the true needs of the community. A cautionary word was offered that some aspects of planning are costly and need to be carefully considered, such as the components of public participation and technical assistance in planning, but that proper resource management and the use of volunteer resources could alleviate some of these concerns.
Conclusions: Good planning standards are needed in Pennsylvania. There was, however, was no consensus in the limited time available on how to create the standards.
County Role in Planning
The question was raised on the county’s role in planning as it relates to the municipalities. Alex noted that counties should be looking for consistency in planning and implementation, and that there is language in the MPC which states that local government planning should be consistent with county plans. Participants agreed that the county and municipality relationship concerning planning should be a “two way street”, and that counties are not as involved in planning as they could be, even though they are required to have comprehensive plans and municipalities are not. The issue of organizational capacity was reviewed to determine who should provide what services, namely, the municipalities or the county.
Conclusions: A greater role for counties is needed to improve coordination and support good planning efforts at the local level.
The conversation touched on barriers to intergovernmental cooperation (IGC), such as fragmentation and a strong sense of municipal boundaries. Participants noted that IGC in the planning realm can be “a really tough sell”, because many municipalities might wonder: “what’s in it for me?” The SPB’s tax base and tax revenue sharing recommendations were indicated as a major point of contention between municipalities with low tax bases and those with high tax bases. One participant suggested that tax base and revenue sharing needs to be presented as a potential development deal making scenario, not a “fiscal disparity remedy. To accomplish this, focus on projects that have regional impact, like the Waterfront development in Homestead.
Conclusions: More incentives are needed for intergovernmental cooperation.
Relating to the MPC, a conversation took place on what is considered to be “infrastructure”, such as roads and telecommunications, and how infrastructure is involved in land use planning. The SPB recommends developing a uniform definition of infrastructure that can be added to the MPC, because as one participant pointed out, unless something is formally identified as infrastructure, it could be argued that it does not count. Participants agreed that “not all infrastructure is created equal” at different points in time, and that infrastructure relating to transportation, like roadways, rivers, and trails, were fundamental in dictating the paths of development. The group decided that an extended list of what can be considered infrastructure would help clarify uncertainties on previously questionable items, such as telecommunications and natural infrastructure. They felt that it might be useful for the MPC to proscribe coordination of various infrastructure elements, but thought that an extended list of infrastructure options would help alleviate confusion for the purposes of coordinated infrastructure planning.
Conclusions: No consensus was derived on the benefit of having a definition of infrastructure prescribed in the MPC. The definition of infrastructure as currently presented in the SPB report is too limited.