What Are Plans Good For?

It seems at times that in Ann Arbor today we are living in a miasma of plans. So many plans being devised, discussed, revised, reviewed, and ultimately adopted.  Even for the really intensely interested (and I count myself among those so obsessed), it is often more convenient to put off reviewing the latest plan, since the details are dizzying and the implications can be dismaying.  But these plans, when in skillful hands, can shape our future. They can be used for bureaucratic justification, political manipulation, good public discourse, or simply go onto a shelf to be ignored.

I’m not a trained (urban) planner, but I’ve served on a county planning commission and advisory board, and have also edited three books on planning, including a methods text, so I’m very familiar with the process.  Ideally, a plan is the result of planning staff’s research and data collection at the direction of policymakers (aka elected or appointed officials).  The staff puts together a number of propositions and/or questions, and has a number of meetings with interested members of the public.  Traditionally in Ann Arbor, a public committee was appointed to work with the staff on the plan, and then took comments from other members of the public who came to their meetings.  Finally the staff compiles all this into a document which is then further reviewed and commented on, with formal public hearings, and the plan is then finally adopted by the City Council after review by the Planning Commission.

But what is the plan good for after all this?  That is a matter of serious controversy that affects some current projects.  As explained earlier, there are a couple of projects on the table that do not coincide with the Central Area Plan, a good plan that went through all the steps described relatively recently (roughly 15 years).  But the position of such plans in Michigan law has been ambiguous.  It has long been thought that master plans have no statutory authority in Michigan, that is, they do not comprise the rule of law.  Classically, a new master plan should then be followed by a new or revised comprehensive zoning ordinance that enacts all the policy statements in the plan into zoning code.  Unfortunately, this was not done for the Central Area Plan and it is not clear to me that any of the existing master plans in Ann Arbor (they have been done by sectors over many years) have been reflected in a zoning ordinance.  The plans are basically vision and policy statements, often with very specific land use recommendations, but it is not clear how defensible they are if challenged by someone who has a development proposal that is denied because it is inconsistent with the plan.

This question has been reviewed recently in an excellent analysis on the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  It quotes Tom Whitaker, the leader of the Germantown neighborhood group, as citing some recent case law that does indicate that master plans have statutory authority.  I hope that our city government gives these arguments a careful review.  Otherwise, the vision of how our city should be configured, developed through laborious process and massive investment by the public, will be ignored in favor of narrowly drawn zoning code.

Speaking of plans, I admired the finesse of the AATA board, who recently passed a support statement (only) for the Ann Arbor Transportation Plan Update .  This “adoption in concept” basically says “okay, guys, some good ideas there” without committing the AATA to anything.   As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the board thought the price tag for this ambitious plan was a bit high. The AATPU requires watching, as does the recent effort to consolidate the different land use plans.

UPDATE: Whitaker further elaborates on the  Germantown blog a case for the importance of master plans based on recent legislation.  As he notes, the Michigan Planning Enabling Act of 2008 has given these plans a much more substantive role.  As the legislation notes, “ In general, a planning commission has such lawful powers as may be necessary to enable it to promote local planning and otherwise carry out the purposes of this act.”  (Section 125.3831, item 4.)  Some of the legislation is possibly confusing since much of it is addressing the interaction between the county planning commission and municipalities.  (Municipalities include cities, villages, and townships.)  Our own Washtenaw County no longer has a planning commission (and many other counties don’t have a separate one).  The Planning Advisory Board completed the Comprehensive Plan for Washtenaw County while I was still serving on it (adopted 2004).  It is not primarily a land use plan, though it makes some broad recommendations.  An earlier joint planning act decreed that the county should review municipal land use plans to be sure that they conform to the general county plan and are not in conflict with the plans of adjacent municipalities.  These reviews were advisory in nature, making only comments and recommendations, not vetoing plans.  This new act appears to strengthen that interaction.

The language of the 2008 act does make it clear that master planning is important, and that planning commissions should take a broad overview of  land use in making decisions.  I hope that the planning commission chair, Bonnie Bona, and the city council representative, Anthony Derezinski, will take the time before the next meeting to review the updated legal status of these plans before refusing to take them into account in site plan decisions.

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