1950s-era Planning Commission meeting

How to Make Better Arguments Before the Planning Commission (or Similar Bodies)

Almost everyone who testifies before the Minneapolis City Planning Commission (and really, similar bodies all over) ends up giving testimony that’s ineffective. This goes for people on both sides of the YIMBY/NIMBY divide, but it applies especially to people in the latter camp, who make up the majority of testifiers.

Go to any planning commission meeting and you’re likely to see a series of neighbors come up to the lectern and speak passionately about what they’d like to see the City Planning Commission do (usually deny the project). Then, at least in Minneapolis, the City Planning Commission members typically ask a couple questions and then almost always approves the project — often by unanimous vote.

As someone who is firmly in favor of a lot more building, I think this status quo is mostly fine. Minneapolis is permitting enough housing units to generally stay abreast of population growth, and rents are largely staying flat as a result. The Minneapolis City Planning Commission understands the basics of supply and demand as well as the environmental benefits of greater density. City plans are also supportive. It’s been a rough decade for the city’s unrepentant NIMBYs.

Photo courtesy of the Whittier Alliance, a nonprofit organization that supports the Whittier neighborhood in Minneapolis

And yet, while I find solace in the policy, I’m troubled by the process. On December 3, the Minneapolis City Planning Commission held its final meeting of 2022, and quite likely its longest and most contentious. Several projects took a significant amount of testimony before being approved. One proposal to downzone two blocks of Northeast Minneapolis was advanced without a recommendation (I testified against it). After the meeting, I saw a Change.org petition and a thread on Nextdoor of people rallying in opposition to one of the developments and also in favor of the downzoning effort.

Seeing this play out underlined some of my discomfort. I generally want people to be involved in their city and their neighborhoods. On a primary level, it pains me that many people come to this kind of civic participation in order to oppose tangible benefits like new housing. But on a secondary level, it pains me that many people come to this kind of civic participation in good faith, spend part of their evenings away from their families and friends, and then essentially get mugged by an arm of government that they expected would be more responsive.

I find myself wishing that our system of land development more frequently produced positive sum outcomes for all parties, instead of creating confrontations that lead to one side walking away feeling frustrated or confused. I’d like people to believe that land development can work for them if they understand how to make it so, instead of believing that it’s a rigged game. I see conspiratorial posts about commissioners being bought, or YIMBY testifiers being paid shills, and I think that beyond debates about rents and greenhouse gases, the broader issue is that a lot of people simply don’t understand what’s going on. From that misunderstanding, grievances are left to flourish.

I’m under no illusions that one blog post will solve this issue. But I also feel some kind of obligation to try.

Three Things to Know About the Land Development Approvals Process (in Minneapolis and Elsewhere)

The Planning Commission is “quasi-judicial”: The first thing to know about the Planning Commissions is that it is a “quasi-judicial” body. In simple terms, what that means is that its members are (1) not acting as judges but (2) are obliged to reach conclusions as if they were.

Many people approach the Planning Commission as if it were a political body. They stand at the lectern and make political arguments. For example, they may allege that the developer is a rotten person who was rude to neighbors during the public outreach process. Or they may suggest that the project architect has no taste and has designed an eyesore. Or they may insist that the people testifying in favor of the project are all members of the Proud Boys. Regardless of the form they take or the truth behind them, political arguments are going to be ineffective because they do provide no basis on which a quasi-judicial body can render a decision.

Legal arguments, however, do carry weight. A development is supposed to comply with zoning rules unless the applicant can demonstrate some reason why it is impractical to do so. Sometimes these exceptions are fairly cut and dried. Sometimes they are already explicitly anticipated by zoning rules that allow for an applicant to provide an additional benefit in exchange for a break. But sometimes they are highly contestable.

The opinions of city planning staff carry a lot of weight in this respect. City staff are also bound to follow the law and provide recommendations for approval or disapproval within those contours. That does not mean that a clear right-or-wrong interpretation exists for every issue, but rather that testifiers can’t be effective unless they know that each approval can be effectively contested only on legal rather than political grounds.

Planning Commission members are not robots who are impervious to an impassioned political case. In March 2022, the Minneapolis Planning Commission denied approval for a proposed building that a majority of members believed was not a stylistic fit with the neighborhood. But in so doing, they could not provide a suitable legal basis for their actions. Mindful of being hit with a sure-loser lawsuit, the Minneapolis City Council swiftly reversed the decision and the City Attorney’s office booked some time before the Planning Commission to remind it of its legal constraints.

The key takeaway is this: In planning and zoning matters, political considerations can provide scaffolding for a decision, but ultimately they cannot substitute for legal reasoning.

This is largely because…

The applicant has property rights: When someone buys a property, they have fairly broad rights to do what they want with that property. They can use the site for axe throwing practice, paint a provocative mural of Lenin or start an unprofitable business. They can also purchase the site with the intention of developing a new building on it. Some of these activities may be limited in various ways by legal or financial realities. But they are not limited by vibes. If neighbors disagree with how someone is using their property, a healthy starting assumption is that they probably can’t do much to stop it.

Often people testifying at the Planning Commission will invoke their long tenure in the neighborhood. This may be relevant to the context of their remarks, but it does not provide additional legal weight to a person’s opinion. Someone who has lived adjacent to a property for 50 years has no greater say in how the property is used than someone who purchased it 5 minutes earlier.

People testifying at the Planning Commission also frequently speak about ambient effects that a proposed building will have in their area. It may block a beloved view, cut down an old tree or close a valued parking lot. But however sympathetic these concerns may be, they do not override the rights of the property owner generally to use their property as they see fit. As such, this type of testimony can provide color to an argument before the Planning Commission but should not form its basis.

And that brings me to…

The commissioners have probably heard your argument already: Almost all of the ordinary citizens who appear before the Planning Commission are there for the first time. Virtually nobody aside from city staff, the members themselves, prolific applicants and various consultants will attend multiple meetings in a year.

This means many people are unaware of how repetitive certain arguments begin to sound and consequently how ineffective they become. Every planning commissioner has been told by testifiers from every part of the city:

  • How quaint the neighborhood is.
  • How the neighborhood has a unique character that is under dire threat from a single project.
  • How the developer failed to adequately engage with the public.
  • How scarce parking is on the block.
  • How a given development just isn’t the right use for the area, irrespective of the use.
  • How a given development is slightly too tall for the area, irrespective of how tall it is.
  • How a given development doesn’t have the right unit mix, irrespective of that unit mix.
  • How a given development has too little affordability or has too much affordability, depending.
  • Most of all, they have heard these arguments prefaced with some variant of the line, “We’re not against all development, but…”

Just about everyone who engages in this type of special pleading really does believe they are special. Moreover, they surely believe that they have made an argument tailored specifically for the situation as it pertains to them. But they don’t know that independently, many other people have arrived at the same place and presented the Planning Commission with the same rhetoric. For these neighbors, the lack of reaction or sympathy from the planning commissioners may seem inexplicable. But for the commissioners who have heard the same phrasing used and misused in so many different contexts, it loses its effect quickly, and it becomes impossible to effectively gauge the degree to which the testimony is true, versus all of the other times that similar arguments have been made.

If you’re going to testify before the Planning Commission, watch the discussion of some items in a previous meeting. They are all posted on YouTube. Watch the presentation of city staff. Listen to the testimony of the public. Then attend to the discussion among the commissioners. Note the differences between what concerns the latter two groups. Did the public testimony unsuccessfully anticipate and address the topics that the commissioners found fresh and relevant?

The Power of Knowing the Process and Having Realistic Expectations from the Start

If people were better informed about how the land development system functions and how its bodies do its work, then they might end up opposing fewer projects in the first place. It’s tough to kill a project outright.

Developers are professionals who can read a zoning code and they hire other professionals who are even more proficient. Rarely will a developer propose something that is significantly out of line with a city’s code and precedent. Typically they will have already adjusted their plans based on initial feedback from city staff well before going for formal approvals.

Developers are also human. They are used to people being angry with them, but it’s not something they tend to seek out and enjoy. The vast majority of developers would love to go for their city approvals with a letter of neighborhood support, and not with a line of neighbors behind the lectern in opposition.

If more people understood this, they might be less likely to take positions of maximalist opposition in a quasi-judicial forum at the last possible moment. Far more effective would be to take a position of qualified support in a political forum as early as possible.

Here’s my best advice if a development project is proposed in your area: Figure out what you want out of it.

  • Does your neighborhood lack a certain type of business?
  • Does your neighborhood lack a certain type of amenity?
  • Is the proposed project site deficient in some way that the development could make right?
  • Do you feel that the neighborhood should encourage affordable housing?
  • Do you feel that the neighborhood needs an influx of market rate housing to encourage more commercial activity nearby?

You get the point.

There are limits to this approach as well. In some cities, neighborhood organizations have perfected the art of the shakedown, funneling contributions from developers into unrelated organizations or initiatives. But in terms of the project itself, neighborhood feedback can often be valuable and make a better project — if it is realistic and offered in good faith. This can bring about the kind of positive sum interactions that make all stakeholders feel better about the process, and make City Planning Commission attendees feel less frustrated when hearing a lot of ineffective and fruitless testimony.

Photo at top courtesy of Hennepin County Library: Minneapolis Planning Commission in the 1950s.

Alex Schieferdecker

About Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is a transportation planner. He grew up in New York City, lived in Philadelphia for seven years, and now lives in Minneapolis. His twitter handle is @alexschief. He is on BlueSky at @alexschief.bsky.social