Like any organization that deals with complicated and interconnected issues and decisions, a planning commission or board of zoning appeals is most effective when it formally adopts rules and procedures. Such procedures help both new and experienced members understand the scope of their responsibilities and authority to navigate difficult planning and community development decisions. Rules and procedures also inform local staff who work closely with planning boards and educate the public on the role of citizen planners. Not only are rules and procedures good practice, but they are also required by the Code of Maryland’s Land Use Article – specifically:
§ 2-105. Planning Commission – Miscellaneous powers and duties
(1) A planning commission shall:
(i) adopt rules for the conduct of its business; and
(ii) keep records of its resolutions, transactions, findings, and determinations.
(2) The records required under paragraph (1) of this subsection shall be open to the public.
§ 4-304. Board of Appeals -- Miscellaneous duties
(a) Rules. -- A board of appeals shall adopt rules in accordance with any local law adopted under this division.
Rules and procedures can cover topics such as the size of the board, the election of officers, meeting frequency, comprehensive plan development, reporting, approval and recommendation authority, and record keeping. It is important to establish rules and procedures well in advance of when the planning commission or board of appeals might face a hotly debated public hearing. A board can never know when an issue will turn contentious, and it is preferable to codify in advance how public testimony will be accepted, how long people can speak, what type of exhibits or evidence will be allowed, and when the public record on an agenda item will be closed.
Note on Virtual Meetings
Since March 2020, many jurisdictions have moved their planning commission and board of appeals meetings online. Each jurisdiction may want to consider how and if their rules and procedures address the unique needs of such meetings. The MPCA recommends that planning boards check with their jurisdiction's (county/municipal) attorney about assuring that virtual meetings are conducted in compliance with the Open Meetings Act, including such details as whether a meeting should be recorded, whether a recording should be archived until the minutes are approved, how "off camera" discussions should be governed, and the process for properly going into the closed portions of virtual meetings.
In terms of technological considerations, three key items to plan for are that:
(1) all members must be able to fully participate in the meeting;
(2) the public must be able to fully observe the meeting; and
(3) if local rules require the board or commission to receive public comment on an issue, then that aspect of the meeting must be facilitated.
If you are interested in learning more about meeting the requirements of the Open Meetings Act during the pandemic, please see the MPCA’s Open Meetings Act training from the fall 2020 conference.
To help jurisdictions seeking to draft or update their rules and procedures, the Maryland Planning Commissioners Association has compiled examples from our jurisdictional partners, which you can find in the links to the left. If you would like to add your rules and procedures to this list, please contact Joe Griffiths, Local Assistance and Training Manager for the Maryland Department of Planning, at firstname.lastname@example.org.