Should your Community have an On-Call Planner?

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Tool Kit LogoMany small communities have an on-call engineer. Someone that works on engineering tasks when a project requires the use of a professional engineer to do the work. These communities can not afford to have an engineer on staff, but hire an engineer or and engineering consulting firm to do the work on an hourly basis.

Yet few of these communities have the same setup with a community planner. I am constantly asked questions by rural city clerks about planning, zoning, and subdivision issues as they have very little help in this regard. With limited budgets, clerks are often forced to stick to clerk-related training opportunities.

So why not hire an on-call planner? Then you can use him or her as often as you wish. Need to amend your zoning regulation to allow for solar farms, but want to set protective measures? Call them up. Is the state handing down new legislative enacted rules on a land use and your regulations must be adjusted before the next full re-write of your regulations? Call them up. Need to make a small amendment to your comprehensive plan or redevelopment plan to make a proposed development work? Call them up! The need to address planning related issues ebs and flows as the days and months go by. With an on-call planner you can chose when to utilize their skills and when you feel you can brave it on your own.

However, there are a couple of things to consider when hiring an on-call planner…..

1. Experience of On-Call Planner

Most on-call planning activities are different from the typical activities handled by planning consultants. A typical planning consultant can make amendments to your comprehensive plan to accommodate a new development. They can also make changes to a zoning map as amending it is in their regular wheel house.

But there are many regular activities that do not fall within that realm. Your on-call planning consultant should have experience in preparing a “facts-of-finding” staff report. They should be able to help city staff usher a development application from submittal to city council approval. They’ll need experience in reviewing rezonings, conditional/special use permits, plats and other actions that implement the plans they typically prepare.

2. Cost and Contract Arrangement

Plan Review

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Do you want your on-call planner to just review a development application and provide a review letter? Or do you want them at planning commission meetings as well to assist the commission in their review of the application, answering the commission’s questions or clarifying the review letter. There’s also some communities that wish for their on-call planner to attend city council meetings as well to provide the same services that the planning commission may utilize.

All these level on involvement cost money though. Most planning firms that offer on-call services utilize an hourly rate to provide these services. Extensive use of their services can hammer a community’s budget if they are not prepared. It is important to anticipate the on-call planner’s level of involvement and adjust how they are utilized accordingly.

Another way to control costs while still retaining the on-call planner’s use is to only send to them the applications you want them to review. Some development application are relatively straight forward. Handing over only those you want another set of eyes on can control costs, while getting the professional assistance when you need it.

Regardless of which consultant you use, and to what extent they are used, having an on-call planning consultant is a good idea. Having someone with experience in reviewing development applications could be vital to avoid the various possible issues that a new development can create. This ensures a positive outcome for the development and the rest of the community.

Christopher Solberg

About Chris Solberg

Though Christopher Solberg (AICP) works in a suburb of a metropolitan area, his roots are in Red Oak, Iowa, a community of 5,500 persons southeast of Omaha. He has spent a significant amount of his career helping small towns. Through his time working for a regional planning association and for a private consultant Chris has helped numerous small towns throughout Iowa and Nebraska. Chris is also currently the President of the Nebraska Planning and Zoning Association (NPZA) and a member of the NE APA Nebraska Board.