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8 Key Components of an Effective Planning-related Staff Report

The planning/land use staff report is a critical document in the development review process. Not only is it the basis for making a decision on a proposed development, regulation, or long-range plan, but it can also serve as a tool for providing information about a proposed project to all interested parties. Yet techniques for preparing an effective staff report are rarely taught at planning schools. Instead, most beginning planners are forced to learn about them “on the job.”

Purpose of a Staff Report

Why should we even care about the quality of a planning staff report? The answer is because, among other objectives, this type of staff report should:

  • Serve as the basis for a proper and appropriate land use decision;
  • Provide concise, easy-to-understand information to all interested parties, including the decision-maker; and
  • Be legally defensible, if challenged.

Who are the Key Players?

The primary actors for a planning staff report are: (a) the actual decision-maker, (b) the applicant, and (c) the staff planner who researches and prepares the report. In Washington State, the decision-maker for major land use/development decisions is either a hearing examiner (who serves as an impartial land use judge for a local government) or a higher level administrative staff person (often the community development or planning director). For those communities without a hearing examiner (although this is becoming less common in our state), a designated citizen commission/board or elected officials may make such major decisions.

Other interested parties include the elected legislative body (if not involved in the actual decision-making), other nearby local governments, state agencies (such as the Washington Department of Ecology for shoreline-related decisions), property owners adjacent to the proposal site, and the general public.

Components of a Good Staff Report

With all of the affected and interested parties listed above, it is important that a planning staff report is written to be informative and useful for all of them. To achieve that goal, a planning staff report should include the following components:

  1. Introductory information, such as file number and applicant name.

  2. A succinct project description, including project location, legal description, who has already reviewed the proposal, and what approval is being requested of the decision-maker.

  3. Background about the proposed project, such as site conditions, applicable zoning, and availability of public services to the site.

  4. A list of exhibits, including comment letters and staff responses, when applicable.

  5. A list of review criteria.

  6. Findings of Fact, which describe the project’s characteristics, relevant facts, and adverse impacts if any. (i.e, Relevant information that has been reviewed and found to be true.)

  7. Conclusions of Law, which are conclusions based on a review of the facts as applied to applicable approval criteria. (i.e., Showing how the project does or does not meet each of your code’s review criteria.)

  8. Staff Recommendation or Decision, with Conditions of Approval, if needed.

Another helpful element to include at the end of a staff report is a reference to the appropriate appeal or reconsideration procedures.

It may also be wise to include an appendix, especially for complicated land use cases where there is background information (for example, technical reports) that may be significant to one or more interested parties. Putting this information in  appendices helps keep the staff report from becoming overly long and cluttered.

Tips for a Good Staff Report

Here are a few tips for preparing a good planning staff report:

  • Explain acronyms and avoid jargon to ensure all audiences can clearly understand your report.
  • Make sure that all parties can follow and comprehend the links between the Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Recommended Action and Conditions (this is what I refer to as being able to “connect the dots” between those three staff report components).
  • While writing a good and complete staff report is a very important action, it is crucial to make sure that the process is clear and that your local procedures help people understand it.
  • Develop a detailed checklists for use by both the applicant and staff, to help clarify the steps in the process.
  • Make sure the schedule is known ahead of time, with clearly identified milestones and deadlines. A flowchart can be a good graphical tool to articulate this information.

By paying attention to the fundamentals listed above, the result will hopefully be a planning staff report that is clear, informative, leads to an appropriate land use decision, and is legally defensible.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Steve Butler

Steve joined MRSC in February 2015. He has been involved in most aspects of community planning for over 30 years, both in the public and private sectors. He received a B.A. from St. Lawrence University (Canton, New York) and a M.S. in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Steve has served as president of statewide planning associations in both Washington and Maine, and was elected to the American Institute of Certified Planner’s College of Fellows in 2008.