Local Government Rule Followers

Posted on December 21, 2018

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This is the monthly blog series by AJ Fawver, the Planning Director in Lubbock, Texas. She’ll share her perspectives on land use, planning, and community development in this series. Learn more about AJ from her GovLove interview!

One of the things we learn early on in local government circles is that we are rule followers. There are lots of rules, and we need to be familiar with those related to our respective areas. The rules are arrived at through exhaustive research and collaboration, and if they don’t work in their final form, there’s always another day to figure that out.

In the planning arena, we learn…when in doubt, reach for the variance tool. Typically, variances are granted by various city boards (here in Texas, for example, the Zoning Board of Adjustment) and in some circumstances, administratively by staff.  

So, we go along, being good administrators and rule followers. Life goes on, development and redevelopment continue to occur, and we are generally either super strict in adhering to those tools or lax in reliance upon them.  

How often, however, do we go back and review our variance requests?  Only when a request for public information is filed? When we are researching another request in the same vicinity? That’s likely the case. That’s unfortunate – and frankly, short-sighted. Here’s why.

I remember being new and being advised that trying to change regulations was something I should avoid. There is quite a process involved in doing so. The prospect is often viewed with dread. It can be viewed as being a massive undertaking.  

It doesn’t have to be that way. Tweaks can often make a good product better, and the clue to getting there is all in a city’s variance requests. They tell the story of what isn’t quite working with a city code. Frequent requests for variation from a standard indicate a need to revisit that standard. It often is not accomplishing what it was intended to, or is not well written.  

Alternatively, it may not have a broad enough scope to fit the character of the community, or is outdated. Furthermore, frequent deviations undermine a city’s ability to properly and adequately plan – as well as the ability for residents and developers to pursue their projects.

There is yet another hint for cities to utilize – their meeting agendas.  Frequency and length of meeting agendas is also a great resource for determining if regulations are unnecessarily onerous or in need of updating.  

Regular, packed agendas full of variance requests is also a strong indicator that the current regulations and community are not aligning.

Perhaps, even after all of this analysis, there is still a need for variances on a frequent basis. At this point, review the process and ensure that it is as simplified as possible; if not, make it so. Give frequent and thorough training to the staff administering the code. Lastly, ask questions of the front line staff, code enforcement officers, and plan reviewers. Not only do they have a front row seat for the recurring issues and frequent requests – they also have a great insight on the circumstances that tend to surround them.

Bottom line? Be assertive in monitoring the effectiveness of regulations, and open to solutions. Examine and understand the cues in day-to-day application processing, and get back to planning communities.

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