Public Policy Forum Blog

Plan Commissions in Southeast Wisconsin

Plan commissions are an often overlooked but ubiquitous part of local land use decision-making throughout the Greater Milwaukee region. In a new report released today, we shed light on what plan commissions in southeast Wisconsin look like, what they do and don’t do, and where they lie within the complex flow of information and power within municipal governments.

The survey responses and interviews conducted for this report suggest that plan commissions in southeast Wisconsin play a critical role in local land use decision-making. While plan commissions are described as the “expert” or responsible entity on land use-related issues, our research reveals that the local plan commission holds a relatively weak position that is often predominately advisory. Also, the scope and capacity of the plan commission often depends on personalities and interpretation, specifically how guiding state statutes are translated into local ordinances, context, and government management.

Other key findings include:

  • Plan commission members in southeast Wisconsin do not reflect the region’s population in terms of occupation, age, ethnicity/race, or sex. Plan commission members tend to hail from business and development-related professions. Women, minorities, and younger adults are under-represented when compared to the adult population in the region.
  • Plan commissions operate in a vacuum. There is little to no interface among local plan commissions or between local plan commissions and the regional planning commission. Further, there are numerous underutilized information and education resources in the state specifically for and about plan commissions.
  • The role of plan commissions is ambiguous and often misunderstood by the public. Plan commission meetings and hearings are often viewed as a point of entry for citizens to air their perspective or concerns regarding a proposed project or development. However, the advisory and limited nature of plan commissions may deem these meetings and hearings an unproductive venue for such input.

This report is designed to be a resource for readers who are familiar and work intimately with local plan commissions while also being informative to those with little familiarity. You can access the full report, video, and related materials here.

Kari Smith