Resources for Involving the Public in Land-Use Planning Decisions

Land-use planning can present difficult and divisive issues for communities. A local agency’s land-use planning decisions literally affect people where they live. Such decisions also affect people’s sense of who they are and the value of their real estate.

Engaging a broad spectrum of the community in these decisions can have a number of benefits, including:

  • Enhanced community buy-in and support for policies that are ultimately adopted;
  • Less need to revisit the same planning issues repeatedly;
  • Better planning policies and documents that reflect issues flagged by members of the public, particularly if the group participating in the decision-making process includes more people than just those who are immediate neighbors of a proposed use; and
  • More knowledgeable residents who understand the standards that decision-makers must apply to particular land-use decisions, as well as the trade-offs sometimes involved in planning and land-use decision-making.

Community members often evaluate local officials’ public service based not only on the wisdom of their decisions but also on their commitment to seeking and then incorporating public input into their decision-making.

Beyond the Public Hearing

Public hearings and the discussions that occur at the planning commission or governing body level are important elements of the decision making process. Additional opportunities for public information and discussion before these formal and constrained meeting formats can enhance community understanding of the issues presented. More importantly, this kind of involvement can enable the public to collaboratively explore options and share ideas. These resources from the Institute for Local Government (ILG) can help:

Case stories on public engagement efforts related to planning issues are also available at

Promoting Informed Public Engagement on Land Use Issues

Land use decision-making can be a fairly technical process, involving the application of specific decision-making criteria required by local, state or federal law. Sharing plain-language information about the more technical aspects of land-use decision-making can enhance the effectiveness of the public’s input into the decision-making process; it can also reduce the stress associated with participating in public discussions.

To enable local agencies to help residents understand the land-use planning process in a cost-effective way, ILG has developed these resources:

  • One-Pagers ( These are one-page summaries of common land-use issues (including variances, conditional use permits, environmental impact reports, zone changes and General Plan amendments) that local agencies can use to explain the decision-making criteria to people who are interested in providing input. The one-pagers can be used as attachments to hard copy or electronic notices of public meetings, as handouts at planning counters and in meetings, and as links on an agency website. These resources are offered in English and Spanish. They are available as Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) files that can be used as is (including as links on an agency website) and as Microsoft Word documents (.doc) that local agencies can customize for their own needs.
  • Land-Use Basics ( Understanding the Basics of Land Use and Planning: Guide to Local Planning provides an overview of the planning framework, describes emerging issues in local planning and outlines some of the important legal issues that arise in planning decisions. A separate four-page checklist describes the nuts and bolts of reviewing a typical development application.
  • Translating Terminology ( The Glossary of Land Use and Planning Terms defines the range of terms that come up in land-use and planning decisions. The glossary includes terms related to emerging issues in land-use planning, including climate change and the health implications of land-use decisions. A two-page insert also lists acronyms and abbreviations of land-use and planning terms.

The Institute encourages California local agencies to take advantage of these resources in their planning process; the Institute also welcomes links to all these resources from agency websites.

Finally, avoiding technical jargon in staff presentations or discussions among decision-makers can also help make the planning process accessible to all in the community; for more information, visit

Engaging Youth in Planning Decisions

Youth Engagement and Local Planning: Ideas for Youth Commissions ( is one in a series of resources that ILG has developed to assist local agencies working with their youth commissions on community issues, including planning issues.

Land Use Decision-Making and Fair Process

Proponents of public engagement processes sometimes refer to “authentic” public engagement. This concept is based on the premise that if local officials ask the public for input, the public reasonably expects is that the officials are open to hearing and considering that input as part of the decision-making process and resolution of the issue.

An extension of that concept occurs when a matter is subject to a public-hearing requirement. When decision-makers participate in public hearings where they are applying community standards to specific situations (described by attorneys as “quasi-judicial decision-making”), the law imposes certain fair-process requirements. This can include not pre-deciding issues before the hearing. For more information about these requirements, read “When an Elected Official Feel Passionately About an Issue: Fair Process Requirements in Adjudicative Decision-Making” at

This article appears in the March 2012 issue of Western City
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