By Jeff Davis

Does your town have a master plan? Or a special plan for the neighborhood or district in which your business is located?

More importantly, do you care? Don’t be shy if the answer is no. You’re not alone. Getting involved in local planning efforts is rarely anyone’s idea of a good time. Day-to-day life pulls each of us in so many different directions, and for small business owners in particular, every moment not spent working on your business gets weighed against all the other competing interests of life. Who has time for attending public meetings? Is it even worth it?

Town planning has a significant impact on local businesses, and most planners are very eager to hear from local business owners. However, the planning process is not always accessible or convenient for small business owners. Here’s why you should care about planning and the ways you can get involved.

Why care about planning?

Planning leads to zoning. In many if not most cases, local planning leads to changes in zoning. And you definitely care about zoning. Zoning controls everything from your required parking spaces, to signs and lighting, to the size and massing of construction or additions, to the types of businesses you’re allowed to run where.

Wouldn’t you like to have a say on the local policies that address these things?

Planning leads to funding. For many towns, local plans set the stage for budget priorities, including what kinds of investments to make in commercial and industrial areas, such as water and sewer infrastructure, streetscape improvements, direct funding and technical assistance for local businesses, etc. Most communities also use the policies and actions in their local plans to justify requests for grant funding from the state and federal government as well as from other private, nonprofit sources. Businesses can use local planning processes to advocate for the investments and grants most needed to support a healthy business sector in town.

Planning is the future. Town planning is all about thinking five, 10, 20, or more years into the future and envisioning what aspects of your town should be conserved, strengthened or transformed. The perspective of the business community needs to be on the table when such decisions are being made. This allows you to take a step back from your day-to-day concerns and focus on the longer-term policies that will help keep you in business for years to come.

At this point, it should be pretty clear why business owners would want to have their voices heard and ideas reflected in local plans. But how do you make that happen when you just can’t attend the next public meeting on a weekday evening at the school gymnasium?

Alternative ways to get involved in planning

Check your town website. Most communities are good about posting planning information on their websites or on special project websites, including presentations, maps, boards, and other information from public meetings you may have missed. At a minimum, read these materials when you have the time, and write to your Town Planner with any questions or ideas of your own. Many project websites will have a sign-up form where you can register to receive updates on the project as they occur, including draft materials and surveys.

Share the responsibility. Do you have a local chamber of commerce or other local business organization? Chances are, many of the members are also interested in the planning process, but like you, just don’t have the time to give.

If the organization has staff, request that they attend planning meetings and circulate the latest ideas and proposals with all of the members. If you don’t have staff, discuss splitting up meeting attendance with your fellow business owners, so that no one person takes on the whole burden.

Have the planners come to you. As mentioned, most planners are excited to hear from the local business community, but struggle to find ways to reach out. Do you have any existing meetings, breakfasts or other gatherings of business owners appropriate for a guest speaker? If so, invite your local planning staff to attend, give a presentation, and listen to the ideas and concerns of you and your colleagues.

On a related note, if your town does not offer any of these alternative ways to get involved, call your town planner and make a request. Tell them what you and your colleagues need in order to be engaged. You’ll be surprised just how willing people will be to accommodate you.

Jeff Davis, AICP, is a Project Planner for the Horsley Witten Group based in the company’s Providence office. He can be reached at jdavis@horsleywitten.com or (401) 272-1717.