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Comprehensive Planning Tips, with a Focus on Implementation

Diverse group of seated people participating in a meeting

Washington State’s Growth Management Act (GMA) planning jurisdictions are, or will be soon, undertaking major updates to their comprehensive plans. This is a major policy effort, mandated to occur every 10 years and meant to help guide growth in your community for the next 20 years and beyond.

Newly enacted state laws, some related to housing and others to climate change, have added more complexity to the already challenging effort to weave together a number of mandated and optional elements to articulate the vision, goals, objectives, and implementation steps that will serve as a “blueprint” for your community’s future. It is also important, however, for local governments to focus on how those goals and objectives can be implemented to achieve visible, significant, and equitable results. The following Japanese proverb highlights the importance of both long-range planning and implementation:

Vision without action is a daydream.
Action without vision is a nightmare.

My experience with comprehensive planning over the past 40 years has prompted me to identify some of the important steps and activities needed to result in a successful comprehensive plan. The recommendations contained in this blog are selective in nature and not meant to be the definitive list of everything you need to do when updating your comprehensive plan.

Process is Very Important

In my opinion, the comprehensive planning process is as important as the final adopted plan. Embedding a strong emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in your planning process (and in the final plan) must be a fundamental aspect of any long-range planning effort. It is essential that you are transparent about the planning process, schedule, expected milestones, the different ways that the public can be involved, and the expected outcome. Having a well thought-out and easy-to-navigate public-facing website that provides this type of information is a key component (a good example is the Olympia Comprehensive Plan webpage).

A comprehensive planning process should also invite meaningful and robust community engagement. It is important to take creative steps to actively engage community members “where they live, work, and play,” since most people will not end up attending even the most inviting in-person community meetings/open houses. If you don’t do a good job with public engagement during the early and middle stages of your planning process, it is more likely some community members will come out near the end of the process and claim they “didn’t know anything about the work being done.” Bellingham’s innovative public engagement program offers a wide range of options for community members to be involved with its comprehensive plan update process.

Most communities will establish an advisory committee to assist with a comprehensive plan update. When creating this type of ad hoc committee, be thoughtful and deliberate about who you want represented on the advisory committee and what you want the committee to do, including how it should engage with the planning commission and elected officials. You should strive to have your advisory committee be as diverse as possible and representative of various community perspectives. Of course, you need to select committee members who are willing to constructively engage in and do the hard work needed to update your plan.

From my own professional experience, I would advise against creating a large number of subcommittees out of the broader advisory committee because that approach often results in the “siloing” of attention onto one specific issue instead of considering how it fits into the larger plan picture. Having multiple subcommittees can also have the unintended effect of burning out committee members with too many overlapping meetings.

Make Your Plan Approachable and User-Friendly

Most community members want their local government’s plan to have meaning for their community’s existing and future quality of life. It is important to make the adopted plan a document that can be viewed as and used to influence key decisions about the future of your jurisdiction on a weekly, monthly, and annual basis. That is easy to say, but harder than most people would think to achieve.

What is needed to make your plan document approachable and user-friendly, you may ask? First, minimize using planning jargon in the document as much as possible. When it is necessary to use a planning term, be sure to explain the term and underlying concept in the body of the plan. I would also suggest that you also consider including a glossary of planning terms (see the Franklin County Comprehensive Plan for a good example).

Second, it is important to make your comprehensive plan document visually appealing, which will involve the abundant use of photographs, illustrations, and charts. And never underestimate the importance of an attractive cover that entices people to “look inside” and start reading your plan, whether it is a digital or hard copy. A good example of a visually appealing planning document is the Pasco Downtown Master Plan.

Focus on Implementation

It is critical that a focus on implementation be rigorously maintained during the comprehensive planning process. This allows all participants to better understand the expected actions related to the plan’s goals and policies, and it can help reduce the potential that the public objects strenuously to a future action being taken to advance the adopted plan’s objectives and action steps. For example, it is not uncommon for community members to show up at a public meeting to oppose a rezone request implementing the plan’s vision, not realizing that they should have raised any concerns when the plan process was identifying potential changes to land use categories and densities.

The importance of implementation was highlighted by a 2022 change to the GMA that requires designated counties and cities to provide a report detailing the progress they have achieved in implementing their comprehensive plans five years after plan review — see RCW 36.70A.130 (9)(a). Recent grant programs funded by the legislature and administered by Washington State Department of Commerce (Commerce) — such as the Connecting Housing to Infrastructure Program (CHIP) — also emphasize the significance of combining long-range planning and implementation.

Link your goals, objectives, and implementation strategies

Make sure that each broad goal in your comprehensive plan has several (or at least one) related objectives. Conversely, each objective must have one or more implementation action steps related to it. If you cannot easily achieve this task when writing your plan, then it is a sign that your objectives are probably too broad or vague, and therefore need to be revised or removed.

Use the SMART approach

The five aspects of the S.M.A.R.T. approach require that implementation strategies are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-specific

Include an Implementation Matrix.

It still surprises me that the GMA doesn’t require implementation strategies and an implementation matrix to be included in a plan. I would recommend that you add an implementation matrix in your plan, which contains for every objective:

  • proposed implementation strategies,
  • a timeframe for the strategies, and
  • the department/organization responsible for implementing the strategies.

For example, each element of the SeaTac Comprehensive Plan has a “Recommended Implementation Strategies” matrix.

Don’t forget about non-regulatory implementation actions

Planners will focus much of their attention on how local zoning and other land use regulations will need to be revised to implement a comprehensive plan’s objectives (especially those related to the GMA Land Use and Housing elements), which is appropriate.

It is important to remember, however, that there are other non-regulatory actions that should be included to implement some of your plan’s goals and objectives. These implementation strategies will likely include both capital improvements (such as those related to needed transportation and utility improvements) and non-capital programs (such as establishing a local DEI program), which will need to be further planned and included in future annual budgets. One good example of an infrastructure-related implementation action is the City of Waitsburg’s sewer system improvement project, which restores a community sewer system built in the 1930s and won a 2023 Governor’s Smart Communities Award.

Conclusion and Resources

Comprehensive planning is a critically important endeavor that culminates in the adoption of a local plan that will guide the future growth of your community. A thoughtful and inclusive planning process and a user-friendly document are major keys to successfully updating your comprehensive plan. But that is only the first step in the process, since implementing your plan’s goals and objectives is what will tangibly impact your community in positive ways and help you achieve your plan’s vision.

Here are some additional resources:

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.