Local decision making can be a complex thing. That’s one of the reasons we have paid staff and elected officials managing the process on a day to day basis. When it comes to being productively involved as a citizen it’s good to know some basics.
The first place people often get involved is at the community hearings that local governments hold to announce programs and receive feedback. While it is an important part of the process, once a project has made it to this point it is often rolling fast and it can be much more difficult to impact the outcome.
To be really influential it is best to start at the beginning; many local governments have a comprehensive community plan. This is in many ways the ground floor of decision making and outlines the broader vision that the community has for future growth. The plans often look twenty to thirty years into the future but are revisited periodically, as often as every five to ten years. This is a great place to get involved and shape future decision making.
Many of the citizens I talk with become involved in a particular water resource issue outside of the comprehensive planning cycle. This doesn’t mean you can’t have an impact but it may mean it is more challenging to do so. If the comprehensive plan is the foundation, then zoning ordinances are the details that fill out the structure and spell out how the plan should be realized. You need to know if a particular proposal for development meets zoning standards. If it doesn’t, this will go a long way toward validating your concerns and creating a path toward resolving it. Figuring this out does involve research, and a positive relationship with local government staff is key.
Another thing to consider is if zoning ordinances match up with the vision of the comprehensive plan. Even if a particular idea for development meets zoning requirements, if it goes against the grain of the comprehensive plan, you have a case for changing that ordinance.
If a development proposal lines up well with both the plan and zoning, the case is harder to make. This is not to say it’s impossible – having a well-organized community that knows the facts, can state them clearly, and can do so in an instructive and positive way can be, and has been, enough to make change. The broader and better organized your representation, the more effective you will be.
There is an excellent resource online put together a number of years ago, but is still very useful and relevant. “A Citizen’s Guide to Influencing Local Land-use Decisions” was created through a partnership between Minnesota Waters (now part of Conservation Minnesota) and 1000 Friends of Minnesota (now Envision Minnesota) and has served as a great primer on the topic – including for me!