What Your Planning Professors Forgot To Tell You About Sanitaria

Twenty plus years ago I was appearing before the governing board of the county for which I still work. I hadn’t been working for the county more than three or four months at that time. As the junior planner in the department I handled most of the minor variances and special use permits. The item before the governing body was a special use permit for a package sewer plant to service a rural subdivision. During the hearing, one of the governing board members asked what the authority was to allow the sewer plant. I was absolutely flabbergasted by the question as I was not that familiar yet with our zoning code. I scrambled to find the authority and discovered that in the zoning district for which the sewer plant was proposed, that sanitaria were permitted with a special use permit. I promptly declared that this must be the authority (assuming that sanitaria was plural for sanitation) and because no one countered my declaration, I was confident that I was right! Toward the end of the hearing, the county district attorney asked to comment on the application. Imagine my horror when he stated that after consulting a dictionary, he had discovered that sanitaria was plural for sanitarium. I turned shades of red, the governing body and audience had a great laugh and I learned a valuable lesson:

“DON’T FAKE THE ANSWER UNLESS YOU ARE REASONABLY SURE THAT NO ONE KNOWS THE RIGHT ANSWER OR CAN LOOK UP THE CORRECT ANSWER.”

Oh, by the way, the district attorney did identify the correct authority for me and the governing body, so at least we weren’t requiring an illegal special use permit.

Michael A. Harper
Washoe County, NV


Reader Responses

The lesson that should be learned is DON’T FAKE THE ANSWER. The humorous story suggests that as long as you can get away with something, go for it. That’s not the way professional planners should conduct themselves. And it probably doesn’t jibe too well with the Code of Ethics. Nonetheless, it’s a great narrative as to one of the reasons why you should admit when you don’t know something – people are likely to find out and then doubt your credibility forever.

Carol Barrett


I have a sign on my wall that reads “No matter what happens, someone will find a way to take it too seriously.”

Danny


Good, ethical advice. But have you ever heard of “male answer syndrome?!”

By the way, count me among those who NEVER ask for directions either!

db