Dear Management Doctor:

Periodically the issue is raised of splitting our Planning & Zoning Departments into two separate departments. We made great strides a couple of years ago when we were authorized to hire a Zoning Administrator so that I wasn't doing it all, but I'm not sure about the benefits of creating another small department. Can you offer an opinion and/or a resource that might help us sort this out and provide solid rationale for either or both approaches?

Thanks in advance,
Sandra Benson
Eastville, VA

Dear Sandra,
I have a strong opinion on this matter. Planning and Zoning should not be split. Zoning is the implementation arm of planning and, as such, should be in the same department. Even when they are in the same department there are issues between the two functions. The planning staff feel that the zoning staff do not adequately implement their grand schemes or don't even believe in them. The zoning planners feel that the planners don't understand the real world and only deal with pie in the sky. This problem becomes even worse when the functions are in two departments.

There are a number of ways to address the problem including:

  • Cross-training of staff
  • Periodic rotation of staff
  • Mixing staff in their office locations
  • Doing plans and ordinances with teams having staff from both functions

There are a number of communities that have the functions split including Tucson, Arizona; Nashville, Tennessee; and the city of San Diego, California. A number of communities once had the functions split and then put them back together including Washoe County, Nevada and San Diego County, California. The functions were split when I became an Assistant County Administrator in San Diego County and I put them back together. I would welcome our readers to give you other examples as well as their opinions on the matter.

Good luck and don't split,

The Management Doctor

Reader Response

I totally agree with the comments provided by the Management Doctor. As noted, Washoe County, NV (county seat: Reno, NV) split the long-range planning and the development review (zoning) into two departments for a period of six years. As Department Director of the zoning portion, I came to realize that this was a grievous mistake even though it provided me a director's position. Coordination between the planning of our county and the implementation of the master plan was tenuous most of the time. Resources that could have benefited both staffs were difficult to come by because there was always a feeling that duplicate resources had to be provided to both departments. Even when beneficial resources were provided to one department, there was a tendency not to share with the other department (as an example, I never felt that the thousands of dollars that the county invested in GIS was fully utilized until both departments were re-combined after the six-year experiment). Both departments tended to search for other tasks that were related to planning, but sometimes resulted in a dilution of resources to accomplish the primary responsibilities (my department took on the issuance of business licenses and really beefed up code enforcement for both zoning and business licenses; the other department got heavily involved in GIS and internal strategic planning for the entire county organization). Although I lost my position as a department director when the departments were re-combined, I came to realize that the splitting of the zoning and comprehensive planning effort was not a benefit to the county organization or the citizens we served. I might add to Paul's comments that a successful planning department, in my opinion, relies upon staff that have experience (or gain experience) in both areas zoning and master planning; and who have respect for both services and the staff that perform that service.

Mike Harper
Washoe County, NV

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