Planning & Specialists

Municipal planners typically assist their local planning boards with review of land subdivision and development proposals to ensure conformity with local, state, and federal laws and regulations. Planners also develop short- and long-term plans for many activities including land use and natural resources, transportation, community and economic development. This work often requires planners to represent their communities at meetings and in collaborative work with other municipalities and agencies to engage in varying amounts of grantwriting and grant administration. They often help local officials alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems by suggesting zoning regulations, recommending locations for investment, and reviewing available resources. In Massachusetts, planners typically work for a municipal planning board, but some municipal planners report directly to a city manager, mayor or town administrator or the community’s community development director.

Municipalities often employ staff with one or more areas of specialization (housing, natural resource protection, open space planning, community development and redevelopment) to oversee monitoring, compliance, and management. Conservation commissions, for example, may employ a specialist, known as a conservation agent, to assist them with natural resource protection. Smaller communities regularly rely on RPAs to provide these services.

Sharing a planner, specialist or conservation agent has the potential to improve social, economic, and environmental issue management while producing cost savings. Some of the main benefits of establishing a shared services program include:

  • Ability to afford more qualified, professional staff by pooling resources and expertise
  • Ability to improve the scope and quality of services available to residents and achieve maximum impact with limited resources
  • Increased capacity to apply for grants and be more competitive in grant applications, bringing additional resources to their communities
  • Avoidance of municipal liability for problems arising from unmet responsibilities
  • Ability of planning boards, conservation commissions, or housing committees/partnerships focus on administrative duties such as policy-making and guidance instead of service delivery and enforcement

Statutory Requirements

Planning: Zoning Act (M.G.L. Ch 40a); (Subdivision Control Law) M.G.L. Ch 41, Sections 81K – 81GG; local Subdivision Rules and Regulations and local Zoning Bylaws. Massachusetts municipalities with more than 10,000 residents are required to have a planning board. Municipalities with fewer than 10,000 residents can authorize their elected officials, i.e., the Board of Selectmen to establish or act as a planning board.

Housing: Affordable Housing / Comprehensive Permit Law (M.G.L. Ch 40b sec 20-23).

Conservation: Conservation Commission Act (M.G.L. Ch 40 sec 8c), the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act (M.G.L. Ch 131 sec 40), and Scenic Mountain Act (M.G.L. Ch 131 sec 39a).

Types of Agreements

There are no specific M.G.L. governing the regionalization of planning services. Municipalities may share such services through an Inter-Municipal Agreement (IMA) under M.G.L. Chapter 131, Section 4a).

Communities may also obtain additional local services from their RPA under a fee-for-service contract or an IMA.

Resources

Planning Board Assistance Program
A Technical Assistance Program by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission
Program website: http://www.pvpc.org/resources/pbab-2010.pdf

Massachusetts Association of Regional Planning Agencies
Association website: http://www.pvpc.org/resource_center/marpa.shtml

Leicester-Spencer Planner
Intermunicipal agreement (link pending)

Town of Sudbury, Community Housing Office
The town of Sudbury hosts the Regional Housing Services Office.
Sudbury Housing Office website: http://www.sudbury.ma.us/departments/CHO/

Berkshire Conservation Agent Program
A technical assistance and training program hosted by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
Program website: http://www.berkshireplanning.org/environment/conservation_agent.html

Upton-Ashland Conservation Agent
Intermunicipal agreement (link pending)

Town of Lancaster, Regionalization Analysis: Conservation Agent
A Technical Assistance Report by the Division of Local Services of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue Report:
http://www.mass.gov/Ador/docs/dls/mdmstuf/Technical_Assistance/FinMgtRev/Lancaster_Conservation.pdf

Examples of Planning

Leicester-Spencer
A reduction in hours for the Town Planner positions in each of the neighboring towns of Leicester and Spencer prompted both towns to work out an intermunicipal agreement to retain the full-time hours and benefits for the Leicester town planner by having this employee work 15 hours/week in Spencer and 25 hours/week in Leicester.

Wareham-Rochester
Both Wareham and Rochester desired the services of a planner but were unable to fund a full-time position. Both towns agreed to jointly advertise for a planner position with the stipulation that the planner would work three days a week in Wareham and two days a week in Rochester under separate contracts with each town.

Hadley-Pioneer Valley Planning Commission
The Town of Hadley has contracted the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) to provide planning assistance to Hadley’s Planning Board for services beyond those available to them free-of-charge as members of the PVPC for the last five years. This arrangement is formalized through a simple contract because of the PVPC’s status as a regional planning agency.

Examples of Housing

Sudbury: Regional Housing Services Office
Sudbury, Bedford, Concord, Lexington, Lincoln, and Weston formalized an intermunicipal agreement in 2011 to share the services of permitting, monitoring and maintaining their affordable housing inventory. Sudbury hosts this program, which operates on a fee-for-services model. Towns pay an annual fee into the program based upon the number of units on the subsidized housing inventory in each community, which was determined to be the best gauge to cover the costs of anticipated services.

Examples of Conservation

Upton-Ashland
Upton needed a conservation agent and approached the nearby town of Ashland about buying a portion of their agent’s time. The town managers negotiated an intermunicipal agreement that established an hourly rate of pay for Upton’s use of Ashland’s conservation agent.

Berkshire Conservation Agent Program (BCAP)
BCAP is a fee-for-service program administered by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission (BRPC) that allows all 32 municipalities within Berkshire County to obtain the services of a qualified conservation agent.