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Should Real Estate Investors Join a Planning and Zoning Committee?

Oct 09, 2020 by Deidre Woollard

A city or town usually grows through a mix of public and private enterprises. As any real estate investor who has ever tried to get a project built knows, a town's zoning or planning commission can wield a lot of power. Commercial real estate developers often must present their project to the city, detailing any zoning changes needed and the overall benefit to the community. But should you try to join one of these committees yourself?

If you live and invest in a single town, it may be beneficial to attend local town meetings first to see if this is something you're interested in doing, but you don't have to be a homeowner to attend or participate. There are a variety of meetings, depending on where you live and how large your community is. In general, it's a relatively small but engaged group that participates in these types of groups, so this can be a chance to network with local VIPs.

In some cases, planning or zoning board members are elected, but often they are volunteers who may have to fill out an application to get appointed. You also may have to demonstrate some level of expertise or understanding of local issues and actually live in the town.

"Local land use laws determine the way everything gets built, and they, therefore, have enormous consequences for our economy, environment, and equity," says Sara Bronin, Thomas F. Gallivan Chair in Real Property Law and Faculty Director, Center for Energy and Environmental Law at the University of Connecticut School of Law. Bronin served for nearly seven years as the chair of the Planning & Zoning Commission in Hartford, Connecticut.

Joining a committee is a commitment

Joining a planning and zoning committee can be a powerful way to get on the inside track for what's happening in a community. You'll learn what new projects are being considered as well as the response to those developments. However, it is also not something to jump into lightly.

As a committee member, not only will you have to attend meetings, but you may have to review documents ahead of time. You may also need to familiarize yourself with the rules of order for meetings, as well as local bylaws, and the zoning code, if your town has one. And you may need to know about the micro-level economics of your community and individual neighborhoods in order to help make informed decisions. These committees also often have a long time commitment, asking members to sign on for at least a year and sometimes three years or longer.

Local politics is not for the faint of heart; it requires patience. Committee members are often older or have been involved in the local scene for a long time and may not be open to new viewpoints at first, but the infusion of new energy and ideas is what helps these groups evolve. The experience of being a member of a committee can be a bit akin to serving on a jury: There are often strong opinions, but as a member, you have an important role and responsibility in the decision-making process. Part of your role includes making choices that help preserve property values while balancing needs for affordable housing and public space.

Says Bronin: "Statistically, the makeup of commissions across the country is predominantly white, male, and older, and predominantly homeowners. We need young people, renters, and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] to step up to lead their communities in taking a fresh look at planning practices and zoning laws, and changing them to reflect modern values."

Joining a committee: Pros and cons

So should you join a planning committee as a real estate investor? These pros and cons will help you decide whether you want to become a member.

Pros Cons
You will hear about new developments first and meet the major players involved. Becoming a member of a committee like this is a serious time commitment.
You will learn about infrastructure changes. If you have a project in the community, there could be an ethics conflict.
You can help change the conversation in your community. You may face resistance from other members.

The Millionacres bottom line

Becoming part of a planning committee is a big decision, and there will likely not be a direct line between your participation and return on investment. However, as an educational experience, your service may provide long-term dividends.

Of her time as a planning committee member, Bronin says, "Rewriting our zoning code and city plan, and developing a climate action plan, will always be among the most rewarding experiences of my life -- and I encourage anyone who cares about the long-term future of their community to raise their hand and get involved."

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