Comprehensive Plan

Dear Management Doctor:

I attended your Planning Director Management Course in Florida this past March. It was excellent.

I am currently trying to get a Comprehensive Plan Update going in my town. It was last done in 1989. The Town Board supports the idea.

They want it done largely in-house, which I think is possible if we keep the plan short and simple. The town already has a lot of other types of plans, some fairly recent, that I think we can reference and pull information from. For example, we have a Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan that covers the entire town and is 4" thick (that's how I measure plans, by their physical size, not the number of pages) that was done in 2004. It has a lot in it about the Town's natural resources, among other things. There's a scenic corridor plan, a transportation study or two, an eight inch thick Environmental Impact Statement on the Implementation of some proposed code changes for land use in 2003, etc.

Do you have any examples of town's that have written a good comprehensive plan that was easy to read and not too long? I'd love to see some examples.

Have you ever seen an example of a town with lots of plans, but with the main Comprehensive Plan 20 years out of date try and compile the plans done since the Comprehensive Plan into an updated Comprehensive Plan?

Our town is about 25,000 people, with probably more here in the summer (I know my first step is to update the demographic data and analyses).

Is there a good book you can recommend on the topic?

Thanks for any insight you can provide.

Heather Lanza, AICP
Southold, New York

Dear Heather,

I very much like the direction you are going or suggesting. As you may recall from my seminar, I think most Comprehensive Plans are way too long and too generic. I could give you lots of bad examples but no good ones. Hopefully one or more of my emailers will come up with some examples. Note:

  1. Take a look at Chapter 15, "Plan Format," in my new The ABZs of Planning Management, Second Edition where I suggest a variety of format approaches.
  2. The thick documents don't do well as policy documents and are hard for staff, citizens and policy makers to use or even understand.
  3. One good way to keep down the size is to have most of the background information in a separate document. This would also be true for any environmental impact report.
  4. I once worked for the renowned dean of M.I.T.'s planning school, Jack Howard. The plan he prepared for Brookline, Mass, a town of 60,00, was 16 pages plus three foldout maps. It was attached to 48 pages of background material. This was adopted in 1960. Granted, planning has changed since then and a good plan might have to be twice as big, but you get the picture.
  5. I stopped doing General Plans a number of years ago. The last two I did both received APA awards.
    • One was for a coastal community, Imperial Beach, CA with a population of 27,000. It ended up 133 pages. I tried to get it less but worked with a citizen body that kept wanting to add words. This was supplemented with 99 page Environmental Impact Report and a one inch thick Technical Appendix.
    • The other was again for a coastal community, Pismo Beach, CA with a population of 8,500. It ended up 180 pages plus 54 pages that included specific details for selected neighborhoods. This was a combined General Plan and the California required a Coastal Plan. The Environmental Impact Report was three quarter inch thick. There were voluminous Technical Appendix document.
  6. In 1987 I was asked to study the Los Angeles County, CA General Plan and suggest a new approach. It took me a considerable amount of time to even find the Plan. When I did, it included 19 separate documents measuring 10 inches in thickness with 1,974 pages and 2,156 goals, objectives and policies. How many elected officials or planning commissioners found this as a useful policy document?
  7. I am advising another California community on planning management issues. They just issued a new draft plan completed by a consultant. It's over 1,000 pages and 2½ inches thick. Not a workable policy document.
  8. When I became Planning Director in Tucson, Arizona, the Planning Department had just released a draft new Comprehensive Plan. It was one and three quarter inches thick. We started to edit and got the policy document down to 50 pages.
  9. When I moved on as Planning Director for San Diego, CA, I rapidly got the reputation of trying to cut documents down to size. Here is a picture of me at my retirement party. I was given an ax to try to chop down one more document.

Paul Zucker

I am eager to see what our emailers will suggest.

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

We are working on an in-house Comprehensive Plan and are also trying to keep things brief while still being effective. We are keeping the Existing Conditions Report separate and just pulling the key trends and issues into the final plan. We are not yet finished, but take a look at our project website ( to see what we have completed so far. Champaign, IL has a population of 75,000 people but we also deal with population fluctuations being home to the University of Illinois.

Our biggest challenge has been public outreach, especially considering our very, very limited budget. The project website and web-based surveys created with have been very successful. We took our message 'to the streets' so to speak by presenting at local service organizations, neighborhood groups and interest groups (Kiwanis, Rotary, our local bicycle group, Farm Bureau, etc.). This was free and most of those groups are looking for people to present at their meetings. We also printed bookmarks with our web address and distributed them through the local school district. We used for the printing as it was so affordable & environmentally friendly.

Our sister city, Urbana, IL finished their Comp Plan recently. They have about 35,000 people. It is a really great example to review and won an award from ILAPA.

Good luck!

Lacey Rains
City of Champaign, IL

About the question on the structure of a Comprehensive Plan, I strongly agree with the Management Doctor's answer. Planners working for government (staff or consultants) have over the past few decades developed what seems to be larger and larger plans that people find more and more difficult to understand and use. I think we planners need to embrace the old adage, "keep it simple!"

Here in Clark County, Nevada, we have been working towards that goal for the past few years. We had a 1984 Comprehensive Plan that was about 1,000 pages and in 6 volumes. We maintained that document through the 1990s at the same time that our community was focused on improving our Land Use Plans. What became apparent to staff and management was that we needed to take a different planning approach--one that was ultimately mindful of the overall strategies & goals while at the same time able to focus on neighborhood and community issues as well as on specific facilities and infrastructure. The question was, "what is the best way to do that?"

We found that the answer for us was to break things down to their simplest forms - to look at the system as a collection of integrated parts. Working with our elected and community leaders, we have moved most of the way towards an approach that views the Comprehensive Plan as a high-level strategic plan, with our various land use plans and facility plans as community-based, implementation plans.

As far as actual production goes, we have developed an effective process for preparing the individual elements of the Comprehensive Plan that separates our background analysis from the actual policy document. With that, we end up with a fairly short and easy-to-use policy document supported by research and analysis that anyone can review as needed. To see more please see the Comprehensive Plan pages on our web site at ements/Pages/compplanindex.aspx.

We certainly are not yet finished with this process, but it has allowed a limited number of department staff to work towards completion of what would otherwise be a daunting task. Also, our elected officials and customers tell us that it's a major improvement.

I hope that helps.

Jon Wardlaw, AICP
Clark County Comprehensive Planning

In regards to the question of an example of a Master Plan that is easy to read and short, or not too long, The City of Troy Master Plan is a good example. The Plan was adopted in October 2008 and is leading the way for a comprehensive re-write of the zoning ordinance. I will provide the link to our website, the pdf of the Master Plan, and our summary we use for education purposes in the zoning ordinance re-write. The following is a comment regarding the City of Troy Master Plan.

The 2008 City of Troy Master Plan throws convention to the wind by directly addressing the quality of life of Troy, in a unique, user-friendly format. Supporting data and extraneous maps are kept in a series of appendices, allowing the document to clearly state the intentions of the people of Troy in concentrated, topic-based chapters addressing transportation, sustainability, housing, and other important issues. The Master Plan is designed to clearly and accurately reflect the philosophies established by the participants in the City's extensive public participation process. This unique format and approach to Master Planning is fast becoming a model for communities statewide.

A copy of the Master Plan can be viewed and downloaded from the following link.

Mark F. Miller
City of Troy

When we last updated the Accomack County, Virginia Comprehensive Plan, we did it partially in-house. I started adding URLs for other documents that provide supporting data. While the plan grew in size, it would have been a lot bigger if we had tried to summarize these documents in the plan. As our plan is online as a PDF, people can click on the references if they want additional information on a topic. The Internet provides a great opportunity to simplify the plan and still provide relevant info without everyone having to wade through it all.

Jim McGowan
Director of Planning

I suggest the City of Fernley, NV. Fernley is a small city of approximately 20,000 residents about 45 miles east of Reno. It recently updated (more like re-wrote) its master plan.

Peter Wysocki, AICP
City of Laramie, WY

We feel the same you do about the size of comprehensive plans. The light came on for us when a community included three questions they wanted answered in writing on one page in the letter notifying us of our selection for an interview for their comprehensive plan. The questions were:

  1. What are the major topics of concern that the village will need to deal with in the next 10 years?
  2. What methods of research will you use to determine the best way to make the citizens aware of these issues?
  3. How do you suggest addressing these issues?
Our initial reaction was these are the questions we will answer during the comprehensive planning process, which will take 12 to 18 months and result in a document of 100 to 150 pages plus the maps and tables. They want us to keep our answers to one page?

But as we began to think about the answers, our reaction changed. After all, if the heart and soul of a comprehensive planning process can be stated with just three questions, maybe a plan doesn't have to have 150 plus pages plus maps and tables. So we asked ourselves, what does need to be in a plan so it that will be used, referred to frequently, and implemented?

In response to the village's three questions, we came up with a new approach and format. First, we got rid of the never ending paragraphs that only planners can love. We forced ourselves to summarize what we wanted to say in bullet points with only one or two sentences. Next, we restructured the format so that each element (Wisconsin's comprehensive planning legislation is broken down into nine elements) had the following sections:

Major Findings
Goals, Objectives, Policies, and Programs
Background Information

The first three sections are what the governing body needs to focus on. They make up about 20 pages total (all elements) in a typical plan, which is something the average city council, village board or town board member can read and absorb. The background information is for the techies and policy wonks that love detail and runs only another 30-50 pages for all of the elements. We make liberal use of links to web sites but we also make sure the links work and stay working.

In writing the Major Findings and Recommendations, we use the "So What?" approach. If we can't give an answer to that question when reading the bullet points, we get rid of them. The Goals, Objectives, Policies, and Programs are based on the Major Findings and Recommendations. We attempt to limit objectives and policies to three or four of each, hopefully no more than six, if at all possible. We also develop a Five-Year Implementation Plan that helps the governing body focus on what needs to be done in the short-tem. The FYIP is reviewed annually and objectives that have been achieved are deleted and objectives that didn't make the list the previous year are added. The point we emphasize to the community is they have limited resources (people, time, and money). The plan itself keeps the long term in view; the FYIP shows what needs to be done now with those limited resources.

The last thing we recommend is to have the plan printed on a 22 by 34 inch sheet. Put the Land Use Plan on one side and the goals, objectives, policies, and programs on the other. If there's room, add the findings and recommendations. It folds down nicely to about an 8.5 by 11 inch document that is easily carried around, given out, mailed or displayed.

Here is a pdf of the table of contents for a plan based on our format and approach. You'll notice we have the Land Use Plan and the Implementation Plan right up front, not at the end (something about Begin With the End in Mind - thank you, Stephen Covey). Feel free to save it and then create a link to it if you find the above information useful in answering Heather's questions.

Jonathan Bartz
Martenson & Eisele, Inc.

P.S. We got the job with the village mentioned above specifically because we showed them how we were going to completely change our approach and format.

Concerning your Sept. 9th Management Doctor inquiry, I'd like to suggest taking a look at the City of Urbana, Illinois' 2005 comprehensive plan. It can be viewed online at

Urbana's population (40,550) is of a similar size, and the plan itself is less than an inch thick. Over 1,000 people participated in the plan's development. An innovative aspect of the plan is that it follows a "system of plans" approach recommended by University of Illinois planning professor, Lew Hopkins, who is also one of our plan commission members. One aspect of the system of plans approach is that a comprehensive plan can be an umbrella document which emphasizes areas where there are gaps in existing plans. Plans have different purposes and timeframes, and they can inform each other. They don't need to all be subsumed into one gigantic document. The plan won an APA-IL award for the best comprehensive plan in Illinois.

The plan also breaks a few traditional rules. Although it profiles community trends, the plan itself does not include population projections, for instance. That works for us though because we've experienced slow, steady growth.

City staff consults the plan for practically every future development decision the City makes. We've already completed many of the plan's implementation strategies, and progress has been made on almost every strategy.

Robert A. Myers, AICP
City of Urbana, IL