Land-use boards consider advantages of full-time planner

Harvard’s Planning Board is pushing to hire a full-time town planner. This move would expedite a variety of functions performed by the board, but would require increased compensation.

On Nov. 29, in a rare gathering of the land-use boards, representatives of the Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Conservation Commission, and the Board of Health met to discuss the proposal. Planning Board representatives Erin McBee and Rich Maiore stated the Planning Board’s need for a full-time town planner. “We have more than enough for such a person,” said Maiore. Zoning Board of Appeals representative Christopher Tracey was supportive but said he didn’t believe that his board would make much use of the increased availability a full-time planner would provide. Conservation Commission representative Paul Willard was even more skeptical, saying that his commission would make little use of the planner, but he did not oppose the proposal.

This week, on Monday, Dec. 4, the Planning Board reconvened and conducted a line-by-line review of the town planner’s job description proposed by outside consultants. The board made extensive changes, both substantive and stylistic, in preparation for upcoming meetings of the Personnel Board, including one Dec. 5, at which the hiring of a full-time town planner was to be discussed.

The role of town planner is currently a contract position, with compensation of $52,000 annually. If the proposal to make the planner a full-time employee is successful, the new salary and benefits would total approximately $75,000.

Benefits of full-time planner

At the land-use board meeting last week, Planning Board members said they anticipated several benefits if a full-time planner were available. A dedicated planner would provide faster turnaround on applications submitted to land-use boards. The town would be able to pursue and win more grants for land-use projects, a belief based on the increased number obtained with the addition of a part-time contract planner. Planning Board Chairwoman McBee pointed to the success of the town of Littleton, which employs a full-time planner, in finding and obtaining grants from the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission. “We need to be proactive rather than reactive,” said McBee, stating her hope that a full-time planner would have the time to look to the longer-term goals of the town.

Planning Board member

Michelle Catalina concurred, saying “Without a full-time planner, the Planning Board will have only a regulatory function, not a planning function.” Maiore noted that the town spends $100,000 each decade on a land-use master plan but has rarely succeeded in implementing many of the plans’ recommendations. While the current planner is unable to work on all the things that require attention within the limited hours specified by his contract, a full-time employee would have the time to work on some longer-term projects.

Employee vs. contractor

Switching from contractor to employee would make it likely the same person would be on hand from year to year. An employee has an expectation of job stability, while a contractor must always be looking for opportunities elsewhere, board members agreed. Harvard’s current town planner, Bill Scanlan, has held the position for several years, but there is no guarantee that this will continue. According to both Maiore and McBee, the familiarity with the town’s unique systems and challenges, which a planner gains over time, is a major asset. Preserving that knowledge rather than having to start from scratch with a new contractor each year would be a significant benefit. On the other hand, Conservation Commission Chairman Willard suggested that by continuing to use a contract planner from year to year, the board could more easily switch to a contractor with a particular area of expertise if the town’s needs were to change.

Organizational fit

One challenge in making the planner a full-time employee is fitting him or her into the organizational hierarchy of boards and other employees, such as long-time employee Liz Allard, who performs the twin duties of conservation agent and land-use administrator, supporting the Conservation Commission, Planning Board, and Zoning Board of Appeals. At the Nov. 29 land-use boards meeting, the Planning Board proposed an organizational structure that would make the planner responsible to boards that regulate private land (such as the Planning Board and the Board of Health) while administrator Allard would deal with those responsible for public land (such as the Conservation Commission and the Parks and Recreation Commission).

This plan was met with skepticism, as many anticipated that the strict separation of duties would impede the efficient operation of these boards and would require the reworking of an organization that currently works well. This question was further muddied by the fact that if the town charter is adopted, the organization of the various boards will be further altered. The next step is for the Planning Board to submit its request to the Board of Selectmen and to the Finance Committee and ask for their support. The hiring of a full-time town planner will ultimately require the approval of the 2018 Annual Town Meeting.

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