Foundations In County-wide Planning

August 25, 2022

by Darcie White, AICP

While the basic components of comprehensive plans for counties are similar to those found in comprehensive plans for cities and towns, county plans require a tailored approach. Size is a key consideration, particularly in western states, where counties are especially large. For example, San Bernadino County, California, the largest county in the United States, covers 20,015 square miles. By comparison, Palm Beach County (the largest county in the state of Florida) covers just 2,034 square miles. Because of size, a key consideration for county planning in the West is finding ways to make the most efficient use of resources—both in the preparation and administration of the comprehensive plan. Opportunities for efficiency can be found at every stage of the process, as discussed below.

Engaging the community.  County population centers are often highly dispersed outside of cities and towns, meaning that travel times, weather conditions, and time of year/day can all influence participation at in-person events. When resources allow, hosting in-person events in a variety of locations around the county—and at a variety of times—can boost engagement and help build trust in the process. In outlying areas, possible sites might include the local Grange Hall, volunteer fire station, farmers market, or elementary school. Meetings should also be scheduled to avoid peak planting or harvest seasons, or other locally significant periods of time where the attention of rural residents will be otherwise occupied. Lastly, in-person meetings must be supplemented with online and virtual input opportunities. Engaging residents from different areas of the county to participate as part of an advisory committee or similar group that meets regularly can also be helpful in getting the word out about the various opportunities for input that exist and encouraging participation. Likewise, providing opportunities for individuals to weigh in on topics of importance to their area of the county, as well as countywide considerations is important.

Managing data and information.  On a countywide scale, it is nearly impossible to capture essential details related to a particular planning topic on a single map. Yet the prospect of generating and maintaining a dozen or more maps for each of a dozen or more individual planning areas is daunting and resource intensive. Thankfully, the emergence of ArcGIS online and other mapping tools has opened the door for more effective (and interactive) approaches. As part of Park County, Wyoming’s Land Use Plan update, TO Engineers developed an interactive map portal to compile essential inventory data and generate area-specific calculations for individual planning areas. In Clark County, Nevada, in-house GIS staff developed a central landing page for the more than 100 maps that were developed as part of a major Master Plan update, accompanied by an interactive Land Use Plan portal that allows individuals to zoom to Future Land Use designations for their particular planning area.

Streamlining the Plan.  To address unique considerations by area, some counties adopt standalone subarea plans for individual planning areas as a companion to the countywide comprehensive plan. This approach allows for tailored policy and land use guidance, but can also be cumbersome to administer and maintain. As an alternative, some counties choose to consolidate standalone plans under the umbrella of the countywide goals and policies in the comprehensive plan. Maintaining a clear distinction between countywide and area-specific considerations helps to reduce redundancy, while still maintaining the level of specificity the community desires. As part of its recent Master Plan update, Clark County, Nevada opted to consolidate 12 standalone land use plans within the new Master Plan to help streamline the overall document, make the Master Plan more user-friendly, and establish a more manageable schedule for updates.