WORTHINGTON — Following discussion at its Tuesday meeting, the Worthington Planning Commission voted to ask the city council if it may begin working to update the city's comprehensive plan.
The comprehensive plan is a document outlining what the city should look like and how it should develop over the next 20 years or so. It addresses land use, housing and transportation, economic development, community spaces, utilities and parks, as well as other elements. By state statute, the planning commission takes the lead on writing it.
The current comprehensive plan was approved in 2004, noted city planner Jeremiah Cromie. Since then, Worthington's population has increased by 20.58%, and the needs of the community have significantly altered.
"Technologically, it's easy," said assistant city administrator Jason Brisson. "Politically, not so much."
A major part of the project would be speaking to residents and council members to gather and synthesize ideas.
"Is there staff time?" commission member Amy Woitalewicz wondered, adding that if it needs to be done, then staff might have to just find the time.
Amy Ernst, the city council member assigned to the planning commission, noted that the 2004 iteration was done by a task force of 18 people, including planning commission and city council members.
Brisson said that zoning requests are slowing down for the winter season, so Cromie has the flexibility to take on leadership of the project should officials decide to proceed with updating the comprehensive plan.
Commission member Ben Weber expressed concern that a few times in the last year, city council has made a decision inconsistent with a planning commission recommendation, citing a vision for the city that doesn't seem to be written anywhere.
"It's a source of conflict," said Weber, who asked that the city council be consulted during the process, so it can share its vision in writing. It seems pointless to make a comprehensive plan if city council is going to follow its own vision, he said.
Ernst responded to Weber's concern.
"In 2004, I'm sure that vision wasn't there," she said, noting that this is one reason the comprehensive plan needs an update. She also pointed out that although the plan is called "comprehensive," it can't possibly account for every circumstance that may arise in the coming years.
"We can't take into account all possible uses in the future," Ernst said.
"A plan is a plan, not an instruction manual," Brisson added. "You can't predict what city council's going to do." It's the city council's prerogative to deviate from the comprehensive plan if it sees fit, he explained.
Furthermore, Brisson said, the city council feels political pressure that the planning commission doesn't. The planning commission can and probably should be fairly rigid about sticking to the comprehensive plan, he noted, but the city council must consider the will of their constituents.
The goal of updating the comprehensive plan is to work toward a shared vision of Worthington's future, Brisson said.
Commission members were also concerned that the comprehensive plan serve all residents of Worthington. It needs to be "inclusive, diverse and equitable," Woitalewicz said.
Brisson added that since 2004, the average family size has increased, which affects housing needs. Also, millennials are coming out of college with so much debt that they can't afford to buy houses, meaning there is a need for more market rate rental housing.
He noted that one aspect of the comprehensive plan may mean rethinking the structure of city government. The current administration does not reflect the demographics of the people of Worthington, and the comprehensive plan could help create opportunities for representation of diverse communities.
"There are obviously a lot of people out there who have opinions and want to be heard," said Brisson, pointing out that — sometimes — the planning commission makes a recommendation, then the city council meets to make a decision, and The Globe writes about it. When the story is posted on The Globe's Facebook page, there are hundreds of "well-thought-out, intelligent" comments, Brisson said. He wondered whether if such feedback were given before a decision is made, it might change the outcome of the council vote.
All of the commission members agreed that they want to make sure the community is consulted on developing the comprehensive plan's vision, so there aren't voices left out.
"This isn't happening in a vacuum," Cromie reminded commission members. "Any plan would have public engagement."
"A lot of people are reactive to decisions rather than proactive," Weber noted.
Commission member Chris Kielblock agreed, saying that it takes work to be engaged in community development, and many people don't want to do the work.
Ernst was hopeful that she could have face-to-face conversations with her constituents about what they would like the comprehensive plan to include, rather than the anonymity of a Facebook comment.
When it came to a vote, the commission was unanimous that they'd like to start working on updating the comprehensive plan. City council will have to authorize the action before it can begin, so it will be an agenda item during the Monday city council meeting.