What does Olympia’s Planning Commission do?

As this blog’s scope covers the planning commission, it should address the objectives and general work of the commission and so this post will cover just a few basics. The actual day to day, week to week work of the commission varies dramatically with the work plan that is adopted so as an introductory, explanatory post, let’s examine the planning commission’s job at least as it was designed by those who created it.

The legislature that created the planning commission had in mind several objectives if the statute (Revised Code of Washington) that bore it is to be believed. According to that statute the planning commission should:

[S]erve in an advisory capacity to the chief administrative officer or the legislative body, or both, as may be provided by ordinance and shall have such other powers and duties as shall be provided by ordinance.

This contemplates substantial latitude in what the planning commission can do. It’s a broad grant of authority from the state legislature. Before we discuss that any further, let’s see how the ordinance creating the commission in the city of Olympia limited that broad grant of authority. The Olympia ordinance tasks the commission with several responsibilities.

[It is] authorized and empowered to act as the research and fact-finding agency of the City. To that end, it may make surveys, provide analysis, undertake research, and make reports as generally authorized or requested by the City Council. The Planning Commission, upon such request or pursuant to such authority, may:

A.    Make inquiries, perform investigations and surveys concerning the resources of the City;

B.    Assemble and analyze any data obtained and formulate plans for the conservation of such resources and the systematic utilization and development thereof;

C.    Make recommendations from time to time as to the best methods of such conservation; utilization and development; and

D.    Cooperate with other public agencies in such planning conservation and development.

The city of Olympia’s website keeps it brief as regards the planning commission:

The Olympia Planning Commission was formed in 1935 to advise the City Council on the long range growth and development of Olympia, including changes to the City’s Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance.

Who can serve on the planning commission? As provided in the advisory committee polices, a member of the volunteer community cannot be a full time employee of the city, and they must live within the city of Olympia.

The time commitment for the planning commission is substantial: There are at least two full commission meetings a month although its subcommittees may meet more often (as often as weekly not inclusive of the regular full meetings of the OPC). So if a commissioner is on more than one committee you could be looking at two meeting a week, that are at least 2 hours with the full commission meetings never fewer than three hours. Some of them have exceeded four. Keep in mind that at least one city staff person is in attendance at all official noticed planning commission meetings.

Current subcommittees include the Finance Subcommittee which deals specifically with the annual update of the city’s Capital Facilities Plan by reviewing that document and advising the city council, typically via letter about the implications of the comprehensive plan with the draft of the CPF. Currently there is also the Comprehensive Plan Update subcommittee which is tasked with reviewing the city staff’s draft update of the comprehensive plan. Finally, the Shoreline Master Program Update Committee is handling and reviewing the draft Shoreline Master Program that the city staff has been drafting over the last couple of years. That document should be sent to the council, after which they will adopt it and send it to the Department of Ecology for approval. (All of the meetings of each of the commission and each of their subcommittees are found here.)

The planning commission wasn’t created out of air. There are many reasons that spurred the legislature to decide planning was necessary and all of them deserve some attention. Likewise in the 70 years since the state legislature promulgated the statute more laws have been enacted which have further revised planning commission responsibilities, none of them as significant as the Growth Management Act which is the legal mechanism that spawned the necessity of local jurisdictional comprehensive plans. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the statutes directly governing planning commissions leave significant latitude to those who serve on the commission. This latitude can be found in simple items like agenda setting from much broader actions like annual work plans. In Olympia, the city council and its subcommittees, particularly the land use committee often instruct the planning commission to look at specific issues and advise the council or its subcommittees. The councils and commissions of each jurisdiction cooperate differently which allows for a varying degree of democratic, volunteer civic participation in the civic sphere in each community.

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