Public Policy Forum Blog

Exploring the role of plan commissions in Southeast Wisconsin

Throughout Southeast Wisconsin and on a daily basis, development projects from retail stores and apartment complexes to technology parks and mixed-use developments are being proposed, negotiated, agreed upon, and sometimes contested. Behind the scenes, zoning codes, municipal codes, and state statutes guide this development, ideally in accordance with a comprehensive municipal plan.

Who is responsible for managing and maintaining comprehensive plans and the legal framework that guides local land use decisions? Who performs the routine reviews and approvals to ensure that new development conforms to broader plans and objectives?

One important entity in urban planning and development processes is the Plan Commission. Plan Commissions – which also go by the name of Planning Board, City Plan Commission, and so forth – are typically five- to seven-member bodies made up of a combination of appointed citizens and government officials. The vast majority of commission members are volunteers, serving without compensation to do just what is described above: review development and other proposals to verify that approved projects and actions are in the best interest of the community.

In the seven counties and approximately 150 towns, villages, and cities of Southeast Wisconsin, no less than 1,000 Plan Commission members are dedicating hours to prepare for and conduct monthly Plan Commission meetings. Municipalities in the region from the smallest (just over 200 residents) to the largest (almost 600,000 residents) have plan commissions, some dating back to as early as the 1920s.

Preparatory materials for commission members, providing them with background on the items up for review on the agenda, can consist of hundreds of pages of maps and text on conditional uses, certified survey maps, concept plans, zoning map changes, non-conforming uses, plats, parcels, and easements. Though volunteer commission members are most often appointed for three-year terms, turnover tends to be low, with some citizens serving for 20 years or more. And while Plan Commission meetings are often routine and citizens in the audience are few and far between, recent meetings in Brookfield, Mequon, and Kohler have drawn dozens of citizens and have lasted for hours.

But what exactly do these Plan Commissions do? What is their role in local development and decision-making and who are the volunteer members that contribute hours of their time to understand and review land use decisions in our communities?

As the 2014-2015 Norman N. Gill Civic Engagement Fellow at the Public Policy Forum, I am working to answer these questions. Over the next few months, I will be examining citizen Plan Commissions throughout Southeast Wisconsin to determine their intended and actual roles and influence in local planning and decision-making processes. As I proceed through this work, I will disseminate the results of my research on how and why Plan Commissions are significant to Southeast Wisconsin residents. This research will culminate with a full-length report in Summer 2015, which will present cumulative data, policy implications, and policy options. I look forward to sharing this information with the Southeast Wisconsin community and providing facts and information about local government that will keep citizens informed. 

Kari Smith