5 Tips on Working Well with City and County Planners

Neighbors often fight neighbors. It’s a fact of life.  When neighbors do get into a disagreement over a boundary line, a tree, or one neighbor’s expansion proposal, it often means city or county planning staff are going to get involved.

Planning division staff is the link to necessary rules and regulations, official city or county policy, internal practices and key documents and guidelines. A good working relationship with planning staff can make the difference between getting the information you need, and being lost in a sea of confusion.

As both an attorney who works on land use and real estate disputes, and a Planning Commissioner who has had to weigh in and decide on contentious projects, I have found that working well with planning staff creates the best outcomes.  The vast majority of planning professionals are honest, dedicated, and committed to serving the public interest, and are a valuable resource no matter where you come down on a particular project.

Unfortunately, today’s economic climate hasn’t helped. Cities and counties across California have been cutting back hours and staff and/or doing layoffs, leaving those who continue to work in the public sector busier than ever. Many planners don’t have the luxury of being able to spend a lot of time on projects which require a lot of attention. As a result, I have found that those who do continue to work for cities in this difficult economic climate often do so out of a commitment to serving the public and their community.

Based on my experiences, I’ve found the following five tips will go a long way towards creating a strong working relationship with planners throughout your project:

  1. Meet Face to Face. Relationships are often better after you have met someone face to face. Whenever possible, set up a time to meet with the planner working on your project at City Hall of the county offices. Even if you make up an excuse to stop by and pick up a document or to look at some plans, your quick face-to-face can improve relations in the long run.
  2. Value Planners’ Contributions. It helps to keep in mind that when it comes to disputes between neighbors or interest groups, planners’ goals are to create lasting and strong communities.  Most planners did not go into the profession because they loved being a sheriff, regulating and restricting applicants’ projects. In fact, cities benefit through increased property values from reconstruction and remodel projects, so most planning departments want to help shepherd projects to completion.
  3. Realize that a call from an Attorney Can Be Intimidating.  As attorneys, we often don’t realize how intimidating a phone call from an attorney out of the blue can be to a non-attorney. For planners who work all day with architects, neighbors, community groups, and developers, it can be a bit of a shock when an attorney suddenly gets involved. Sending threatening signals (even if not intentional) can be detrimental to the collaborative process.  Whenever you first become involved in a project, you should be aware of the effect your involvement can have and the message it can send. It can also often be more valuable to have an architect be the public face of a project at Planning Commission hearings, unless it is absolutely necessary for an attorney to speak.
  4. Ask for Planners’ Advice. You will be surprised how much information you can get by just asking for a planners’ opinion or recommendation.  Even if they may disagree with your client’s position, their response may be insightful. After all, no matter how much experience an attorney has with real estate and land use issues, planners have their own education, skills, and set of experience, so they may have valuable advice.
  5. Trust, But Verify. A valuable approach in working with planning department staff is to trust planners’ contributions and analysis, but to also verify all assumptions.  In high value property regions such as Marin county, most real estate projects attempt to maximize allowable square footage, heights, and floor area ratios.  In an era of limited public sector staffing, it is important to make sure that a planner’s analysis of what may be built within the local zoning framework is accurate.

No matter how contentious the project, having a good working relationship with planning staff can make a major difference between a very difficult planning process, and a collaborative, successful project.

John Corcoran is an attorney with Plastiras & Terrizzi in San Rafael and Vice Chair of the Town of Tiburon Planning Commission in Marin County, California.  He advises clients about various real estate and land use matters.  He can be reached at (415) 250-8131 or jcorcoran@ptlegal.com.

A similar version of this article appeared in The Marin Lawyer.

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