The Scoop on Comp, Master, General, Strategic, Vision Plans

Posted on June 24, 2017

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

In the initial post of this series, we talked briefly about what makes cities successful, and the fact that all members of a city organization have the ability to contribute to that success.  To begin expanding on that theme, let’s look first to the area we do not devote enough time – if any – to focusing on and discussing thoroughly; that is, the vision for the city.

Here’s the thing: there is wide acceptance for the idea that an organization or community needs to know where it is going and how to get there.  So, why is it that time allocated for visioning as an active activity with elected officials and citizens, or discussion of that vision, is so small?  There’s some food for thought.  Expect to hear more on this in future posts.

Within government organizations, there is a tendency for the staff to focus on documents which are integral to the work of whatever department that individual is part of.  While that is an important and necessary focus, there also must be an eye kept on the bigger picture.  

How does the work of that department, and the focus on those documents, fit into the overall vision of the organization (and community)?  Are you working cohesively, or at cross-purposes?  

I challenge you to ask yourself these questions, or discuss them periodically with your staff if you are a supervisor, manager, or director in your organization.

Naturally, you may be wondering where this vision is usually articulated or contained.  That brings me to today’s focus on the comprehensive plan (also often referred to as the “master plan”, “general plan”, strategic plan”, or “vision plan”).  The comprehensive plan is frequently perceived as a document that essentially “belongs” to or is only important to a planning department.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  

A comprehensive plan essentially articulates the vision for the community through the framework of goals and objectives which may be correlated with levels of priority and periods of time.  

It reviews the existing conditions and identifies actions which, when implemented, satisfy those goals and objectives.  Typically, a comprehensive plan includes various areas of focus such as land use, transportation network, parks, infrastructure, and economic development, to name a few.  However, if you start digging into the actions and implementation strategy with an open mind, it becomes clear that many other groups are also necessary to the success of the plan, such as finance, purchasing, environmental health, or information technology.  It is easy to overlook those groups as they are typically not specifically mentioned in the document.  That does not mean that their involvement is not of critical importance.

Let’s look at an example.  A common recommendation for a community would be to focus on infill redevelopment along older corridors.  Naturally, that sounds like an action that would include your planning department staff.  However, who else could be important in that effort?  

  • Economic development staff, crucial in utilizing incentives tailored to those corridors.  
  • Public works/engineering staff, essential in upgrading and expanding infrastructure to facilitate development.  
  • Budget/finance staff, important in helping identify funding for these efforts – from an incentives standpoint and an infrastructure standpoint.  
  • Traffic engineering staff, important in dealing with access management along those corridors – often complicated when dealing with infill and existing entrances and traffic patterns.  
  • Fire safety and building permitting staff, imperative in dealing with the upgrades necessary for existing structures – and potentially identifying areas where the city could create code-related incentives.
  • Transit and transportation planning staff, critical to ensuring localized mobility and connectivity.  
  • Community relations/public information staff, experts in branding the concentrated infill efforts, messaging, and marketing.
  • Parks staff, central to making decisions about landscaping and the adequacy of public space.
  • GIS staff, significant in mapping, collecting data, and analyzing the corridor – while drawing important conclusions.
  • Purchasing/real estate staff, whose expertise can help to identify publicly-owned properties which may be prime catalysts in the corridor, or who can investigate the status of existing liens.
  • Legal staff, essential to property acquisition through voluntary conveyances or vacant property receivership.
  • Code enforcement staff, important in identifying and addressing dangerous structures.
  • Information technology staff, whose proficiency in website development can assist by creating a central online presence for information related to the initiative

These are but a few examples which demonstrate the breadth and depth of such an endeavor.  Many city departments are included and necessary.

So, we’ve got a solid plan.  That’s a great start.  However, it is just that – a beginning.  Implementation of the vision is crucial to the success and progress of a city.  Too often, opportunities for coordinating planning and public investments are missed or overlooked.  

To be truly successful, the collective efforts of the city staff, elected and appointed officials, and the support of the community are necessary.  

A comprehensive planning process which was accompanied by extensive public engagement and input always sets the stage for support of implementation efforts, and makes obtaining the approvals necessary far simpler.  

Nevertheless, as local government leaders, it is up to us to always make decisions and recommendations which support the adopted plan – requiring our familiarity with it – while brainstorming ways to further execute it.  

What are some strategies any city can implement?  Here are a few, which often require working collaboratively with colleagues in other departments:

  • Coordinate your budget with the vision.
  • Ensure your capital program is consistent with the vision.
  • Make a key element of staff recommendations an assessment of how it aligns (or more importantly, does not) with the vision.
  • Evaluate your ordinances and policies to guarantee that they are effectively serving a purpose which supports the vision.
  • Create criteria for evaluation of applications and proposals which carries out elements of the vision.
  • Correlate other plans and studies with the vision – this could include transit studies, parks & recreation plans, design standards, drainage master plans, street construction guidelines, and many more.  

Now, I urge you to take a new look at your community’s vision in the context of your work with cities, and the decision makers you partner with.  Does one exist, or does it need updating?  If not, that’s a crucial conversation to have.  As an organization, are you doing everything possible to support and carry out that vision?  

Are you keeping an eye on the bigger picture when making recommendations and updating or creating policy?  

Have you addressed all of the suggestions listed above?  Can your department be a better partner in these efforts?  You might be surprised to learn that you are missing opportunities for implementation, and even more surprised at how easily that can be to remedy.

Questions? Want to get in touch with AJ?

Connect with her on LinkedIn or send her an email.

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