As a sitting member and former chair of the Salt Lake City Planning Commission, I read with interest Kevin Paulson's guest column in the Oct. 27 Tribune entitled, "City planning needs neighborhood input." I was particularly interested in his statement that planning decisions are made "by the arbitrary whims of the planning commission members."
The Salt Lake City Planning Commission is made up of up to 11 citizens of Salt Lake City who are nominated by the mayor, approved by the City Council, and who serve voluntarily for four-year terms.
We live all over the city from Redwood Road to the foothills. While we don't represent our council district per se, we are of course particularly interested in our local parts of the city.
The commissioners are presented agenda items in our twice-monthly meetings on which to make decisions.
A packet of information is assembled by planning division staff for each item and includes the details of the project, relevant portions of the zoning ordinance and any public comment received.
Before the commission gets an agenda item, it goes to the appropriate community council for its review, and any community council response is included in the packet. A sign is posted on the applicable property and notices are mailed to all of the nearby property owners to encourage them to provide their input either in writing or in person at the public hearing. We visit the site prior to the meeting and then hold the public hearing.
When I make a decision, I take three things into consideration. First of all, the law (i.e. the zoning ordinance). When we hear an administrative item, the law has already been made and we are there to apply the law to the situation. These are usually conditional-use hearings, and our purpose there is to see if there are any problems with the proposal that cannot be adequately mitigated thus preventing the project from moving forward.
The second thing I pay attention to is the public input. I think we all pay particularly close attention to any community council input. We are also very interested to hear what the neighbors and other interested parties have to say. This is especially important for legislative items such as zoning changes where we are making a recommendation to the City Council to change the law.
And finally, I value the input of the city planning staff. You would be surprised, however, how many times after taking the law and the public input into consideration we decide something other than what the planning staff has recommended.
So rather than making decisions based on an arbitrary whim, I, and I believe the rest of the commissioners, take a careful look at the law, review the planning staff recommendation, and pay close attention to the written public comments and the verbal comments from people who take part in the public hearing. Only then do I make a decision based on what the law says, what the facts of the case are, and what the neighbors want.
These are not always in sync, so I take my responsibility to make a final decision or make a recommendation to send on to the City Council very seriously.
All of the commission members are from the community. Because we all live in Salt Lake City, we all want our city to continue to be a great place to live, and we do our best to make thoughtful decisions that will be best for our neighbors and friends and all the people who live and work in our city.
Michael Fife is a project manager and member of the Salt Lake City Planning Commission.