The potential for pro-development bias on zoning boards remains a problem, even in states such as Oregon that have enacted laws to solve the problem, according to a new study in The Urban Lawyer.
Professor Jerry L. Anderson of Drake University Law School, along with Dan Luebbering, a 2005 Drake law graduate, found that 40 percent of Oregon planning commissioners could be said to have some occupational bias regarding development activity. While 24 percent had an occupation directly related to building and development, another 17 percent were engaged in occupations, such as floorcovering or lumber sales, that may be indirectly benefited by development projects.
“Oregon planning commissions are heavily weighted toward white-collar occupations and are vulnerable to pro-development bias,” Anderson said. “Oregon law restricting planning commission membership, however, has helped to reduce the number of commissioners who directly benefit from development.”
Oregon law limits zoning commissions to no more than two individuals from each “kind of occupation,” and is considered the strictest zoning law on the books regarding potential occupational bias. However, Anderson and Luebbering found that this restriction has done little to help achieve a more diverse membership.
For example, the two found that 75 percent of Oregon planning commissioners have white-collar occupations (professional/managerial/technical), even though only a third of the state’s overall workforce falls in that category. In cities over 25,000, the percentage of white-collar commissioners rose to 90 percent.
Even though the law prohibits more than two members from the same profession, some towns had skirted the limitation. North Plains, for example, listed three software engineers on its commission. North Bend listed two “real estate developers” and one
“home builder,” in addition to a real estate office employee.
The researchers believe that a broad occupational representation on planning commissions is important, to ensure that the views of all segments of the community are considered. Most states do not restrict zoning board appointments at all, making Oregon a possible model for others. In Iowa, for example, 50 percent of planning and zoning commissioners had some kind of occupational bias as compared to 40 percent for Oregon.
“While the Oregon law has had some positive impact, it needs to be strengthened even more,” Anderson said. “Zoning boards need more members from sectors such as labor, sales, agricultural and preservation organizations. People with vested interests are the most likely to volunteer, so cities may need to be pro-active to find others and may even need to pay commissioners to encourage participation.”
The study determined that, while the law had reduced the number of commissioners involved in development activity, there were isolated instances of commissions dominated by development interests.
In Coos Bay, for example, the commission was composed of a real estate agent, a planner, a landscape architect, an appraiser, a retired architect, a motel manager and a small business owner. Because all of these occupations either directly or indirectly would benefit from additional development, the researchers were concerned that their decisions would have a systematic bias in favor of development projects.
The Urban Lawyer is published by the American Bar Association. The full survey data, which was collected in fall 2004, is posted at http://facstaff.law.drake.edu/jerry.anderson/Oregonresearch.html.