Friday, May 8, 2009

What I learned at the APA Conference

Between April 25, 2009 and April 29, 2009 I attended 2009 national conference of the American Planning Association. The conference was held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and contained over 500 diverse sessions and other opportunities to educate oneself. I wanted to give a brief update on the sessions I attended and the information that I brought back to integrate into our processes and policies. There were approximately 4 session opportunities a day Sunday to Tuesday, three sessions on Wednesday and one long session opportunity on Saturday. Furthermore, if one attended, as I did, mobile workshops, those workshop sessions overlayed 2 sessions, thus affecting the overall number of sessions attended. I have separated the sessions into areas of interest for this memo.


I attended three sessions on leadership and organization. Two sessions were focused on leading staff and improving workflow through evaluating process and programming, the third session was on interacting with the Board.

The sessions involving staff offered process ideas relating to separating projects from day to day work flow. The basic idea was that both day to day plan review and project management of larger process are both integral parts of the local planning process. One lesson learned is that while there needs to be flexibility, if a department becomes just a plan review operation, then long term planning and improvements do not occur. The flip side of course is that a department can become unfriendly for development. I learned some good ideas on reviewing workflow to encourage the balance that Dover needs to pursue in those two areas.

The second internal session focused on improving customer service through counter accessibility and customer flow using electronic methods to increase interaction with the public and internal customers. While the physical layout of the department has been determined through the space needs/furniture project that is winding down, some areas to tweak were identified and I hope that we can make some small changes to our layout to improve customer flow. Additionally, interdepartmental workflow was discussed. I have discussed with Dan Barufaldi, Economic Development Director, and Dave White, City Engineer, the need to develop a handbook to guide landowners through the development process. This roadmap will also include discussions with the Inspection division of the Fire Department. We hope to work on this project this summer.

Finally, the session on interacting with the Planning Board was a good exercise to see that communications at all levels can always be improved. We struggle with staff development, and need to continue to push that, but also need to empower the Planning Board members to also continually educate themselves. As I sat and listened to a Planner from Pennsylvania discuss the differences in his state between towns and cities, it made me smile. We encourage our board members to attend state conferences. The downside is that we live in a state with 221 towns, and 13 cities. The bulk of the state RSAs are designed for, and written by, the towns with cities being almost an afterthought. We need to be able to assist our board members in learning to filter the information they are told at state programs through the city/town filter.

An outcome of that session was a reminder that workshops are a good local took. Knowing that I plan on adjusting the PB schedule come July to one regular meeting a month, I am going to propose that the lost regular meeting be replaced with a workshop meeting. This meeting can be topical as well as educational. The July meeting will be a reoccurrence of a workshop held in 2008, where the board drove around Dover to review past projects and reacquaint them with the City.

Public Dissemination of Information

I attended three sessions on communicating information to the public. Two of these sessions focused solely on integrating GIS and the web, and one on electronic method of communicating with the public. I am very interested in becoming as paperless as possible and moving as much towards electronic communication with the public. We started this process by scanning and loading onto the web the planning board agenda materials, a la the Council packets.

The first session I attended documented the workflow a community in Virginia used to collaborate between its Planning, Engineering and IT offices to display information online. This was similar to the process IT has spearheaded here in Dover, to create an online mapping protocol plus document archive system. The second similar session involved a department in Indiana that decided to use the GIS system to display trends and development activity, through mapping changes in the zoning and approved site plans of parcels. In this community, the GIS data was relational and not a direct special display of data, so it could not coordinate with a parcel map. Instead it was more likely to showcase development and redevelopment of a parcel and any variances approved for a property.

The final session dealt with improving communications with the public through electronic means. The department has already used Google Groups and Picasa to display information and encourage feedback for the Form Based Code project, so we were interested in electronic methods. Additionally, we have improved our abutter notices to include the plan being proposed and a description of the plan, as well as the agenda. This session focused on using Google Maps to display project locations, and using a blog to inform the public. In preparing for the May 12th, Planning Board meeting we developed a Google Map for the display of project locations, and continued the trend for the May Zoning Board meeting[1]. This is my first post on the department’s blog. Other ideas are out there and we will be following up on those as we are able.

Rezoning Information

Three of the sessions I attended revolved around zoning. One session was focused on form based code, or as the presenter described “design based code”. This session was very informative, as we are pursuing a context sensitive based code for downtown (my preferred reference. The session discussed alternative code examples from across the county and also elaborated on some hurdles people have witnessed.

The second session focused on rezoning from a theoretical perspective. The foundation for the discussion was that traditional zoning in the United States is based upon segmenting uses to separate them. Over the past 10 – 15 years Planners have recognized the inefficiency of separated uses and the value in mixing uses on different density levels. The problem occurs when communities try to amend regulations instead of replacing them. The session focused on how to rezone, from a process standpoint, and not what the ultimate zoning should be.

The final session focused more on the “dos” and “don’ts” of rezoning, and what different communities have learned through the process. I was able to take some good notes to learn for our current process.


I attended two sessions that were workshops to learn technical aspects of the planning/engineering process. The first was on construction/project management. The second was on low impact development. The construction management session was good for learning how developers review the planning process and learn what happens once a plan is approved from the developer frame of reference.

The low impact development session toured a residential and commercial project highlighting the storm water management aspects of the projects, including pervious concrete, compact road widths, infiltration basins, rain gardens, and wetlands mitigation. The session was presented by both State of Minnesota water resources staff and the respective developers and was interesting and very informative on the pros and cons of LID.

[1] See maps on

1 comment:

  1. It would be great to have a real GIS in Dover, expecially on the web, move to ESRI and dump bentley!