Planning a better Springfield
The Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission maps the future
No little girl tells her parents she wants to be a zoning analyst when she grows up. The job is figuring out whether a local government should allow proposed changes to a piece of property, which sounds about as exciting as being a tollbooth operator. But for Molly Berns, a senior planner with the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, zoning is fun because she’s influencing the future.
“My role is to look out for the best interests of the city and the county, and I take it very seriously,” Berns said.
Originally from Rochester, Berns spends much of her time examining historical records, poring over maps and sifting through legal documents to determine whether a particular zoning request follows the law and fits with the city or county’s long-term plans.
“I like driving by something that went through the zoning process, whether it’s a property owner’s new fence or a property owner whose case was denied, but in doing so cleaned up their property. I like knowing I’m a part of that. I find it very interesting and fascinating, and you never know what’s going to come up.”
Berns is one of about a dozen urban planners at the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, the multi-jurisdictional agency responsible for drawing the vision of this community’s future. The planning commission turns scattered facts into meaningful research that city and county officials can use in making decisions. The commission is independent and nonpartisan, and its reputation for objectivity gives it influence on important issues in Sangamon County, such as wind energy, transportation, rail consolidation, environmental planning, subdivisions and more.
The Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, which goes by the mouthful of an acronym “SSCRPC,” started as two organizations. As the current name suggests, the predecessor agencies were two separate planning commissions belonging to the city and the county. The two groups began working together and sharing staff in the 1950s, and they officially merged in 1987 through a county ordinance. The commission is headquartered in Room 212 of the Sangamon County Building.
The 12-member staff of the commission is overseen by 23 commission members appointed from various jurisdictions, including the Springfield mayor and Sangamon County Board chair. The commission’s work is divided into four overlapping areas: development, transportation, land use and comprehensive and strategic planning, with one senior planner handling each area. They’re funded by the City of Springfield, Sangamon County, grants from the state and federal transportation departments, and contract work with municipalities like Curran, Sherman and Williamsville.
In addition to serving the City of Springfield and Sangamon County, the commission does work for 116 other jurisdictions within the county, including special taxing bodies like park districts. Despite serving so many entities, the commission is independent and nonpartisan, giving it the ability to offer its “product” – research – without allegiance to any particular body other than the public.
“We look at ourselves as a good consulting organization at prices that participating entities can afford,” said Norm Sims, the commission’s executive director. “We’re able to do for them things that they would have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for if they were hiring somebody out of Chicago.”
One example is the economic development plan the commission is currently creating for the Village of Leland Grove. The village presents a challenge because it’s landlocked and consists almost exclusively of residential areas, Sims says. Paying an economic development firm to do such a study would likely be prohibitively expensive for a small village, but the commission offers the same services for less.
Sims was born in Kentucky and moved to Indiana before settling in Illinois, much like a certain former U.S. president from Springfield.
“Besides that and wearing a top hat in a parade, I don’t have much in common with Abe Lincoln,” jokes Sims, a friendly guy with a penchant for Corvettes and self-depreciating humor. He jokingly says, “I don’t do anything here,” while giving credit to his staff for the well-regarded research they produce.
Sims went to college at Western Kentucky University for psychology and mass communications, then got his master’s degree at the University of Kentucky in organizational planning. He has worked in a variety of roles throughout his life, most notably serving as former Gov. Jim Edgar’s director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs and as director of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Springfield under former mayor Karen Hasara.
Sims started at the planning commission six years ago and is currently earning his doctorate at the University of Illinois Springfield. He recently won the Rail-Splitter Public Service Award from the Central Illinois Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration, which honors “public servants whose careers exhibit the highest standard of excellence, dedication and accomplishment.”
His approach to planning is modeled after the belief of founding father Thomas Jefferson that the public is best able to make its own decisions, rather than the privileged elite, meaning that public input on projects is crucial. Hearing him describe the commission’s work, it’s easy to see how his undergraduate degree in psychology can come in handy in the planning field: plans only work if people follow them.
“Often, people in the planning world adopt innovations with all the enthusiasm of a religious revival, but sometimes with the success of the Soviet economy,” Sims said. “We’ve got to understand how people want to live and how people use their environment, then build that into our planning.”
The “problem” of parking in downtown Springfield is an example of how plans sometimes conflict with the public’s thought process. There are an astonishing 29,000 parking spaces downtown in public and private lots, according to a count by the commission, but downtown parking is a common gripe among Springfield residents. Linda Wheeland, senior planner for transportation, says it’s only a matter of perception.
“If you go to the mall, you can always find a parking spot, because no matter where you are in the parking lot, you can see the mall,” she said. “If you’re downtown and can’t find a parking spot within view of your destination, it feels like there’s no parking.”
Sims and his crew take their reputation and objectivity seriously. For example, Molly Berns’ zoning work is treated as a quasi-judicial process, with two analysts writing separate reports on each zoning case. They must merge their reports and defend the merged version to Sims to ensure that all facets of a zoning request are covered. Analysts aren’t allowed to talk to anyone about a particular zoning case to prevent any undue influence from seeping into the report that gets submitted to the city and county zoning boards as evidence. If someone wants to talk to an analyst about their case, Molly Berns says they must do it at the public hearings held by the zoning boards to ensure transparency.
“We don’t want someone sharing something that may have the perception of swaying my opinion,” Berns said. “It’s important for us that anything that is said in relation to a case is said on the record. It absolutely has to be on the record at the hearing.”
How does she resist the urge to tell a zoning applicant what they want to hear?
“Years of practice in self-denial,” Berns says with a laugh. “But seriously, I’m trained and fully believe that the governmental process has to take into account a myriad of issues. Our role is to provide an independent analysis, and it’s up to the elected officials to make a final determination. Some of the things I say are not going to be popular, and that’s okay, because I believe that our work here is for the long-term betterment of the city, the county, and for all parties included.”
Ward 2 Alderwoman Gail Simpson calls the commission’s work “impeccable.” She points to the commission’s analysis of commercial development potential in the area bounded by Cook Street and South Grand Avenue between 11th and 18th streets.
“They put together a plan that was pretty representative of the likelihood of the success in that area,” Simpson said, confirming that the planners didn’t just tell the city what it wanted to hear. “They are very thorough, and I rely very heavily on the research they provide. You may not like the results, but you can pretty much stand on it being fair and accurate.”
While Sims facetiously claims not to do anything at the commission, he spends a considerable amount of time being the public face of planning in Springfield. He attends countless meetings of neighborhood associations, the Citizens Club of Springfield and other groups. He considers it building what he calls “a constituency for planning” – making developers, decision makers and the public realize that a successful community doesn’t just happen.
But it may be what Sims doesn’t do that makes the commission work well. The staff at the commission says Sims doesn’t micromanage, instead allowing them to put their expertise to work.
“Norm has a lot of faith in what we do,” said Joe Zeibart, a senior planner in the commission’s development section. “If there’s something that’s very controversial, I’ll go to him, but he backs me on my decisions, which is nice, because it gives you the ability to make those decisions and the confidence to do what you need to do.”
Much of Zeibart’s job is evaluating subdivision proposals to make sure they fit with long-term development plans and abide by state and local laws. He’s also responsible for projects like the downtown property inventory and several interactive maps to show data – something the commission is hoping to do more of in the future. One of his projects is an interactive map showing proposed subdivision projects around Springfield.
“I view things better looking at a map,” Zeibart said. “It’s something you can look at and instantly know what’s going on.”
With a staff of only 12 people, the planning commission is small but prolific. The staff constantly churns out reports, maps and policy recommendations for use by the Springfield City Council, Sangamon County Board, Illinois Department of Transportation and the many small municipal governments in the county.
Case in point: three years ago, when it looked like a wind farm would sprout up around New Berlin and Pleasant Plains, the commission produced a literature review on the effects of wind farms on property values and public health, along with a study comparing Sangamon County’s wind farm regulations with those in other jurisdictions. The wind farm project is currently still in development, and the planning commission’s studies helped quell fears that wind turbines would destroy property values and impede development.
When the announcement of a high-speed rail line and increased freight trains through Springfield raised the question of which rail corridor would be used, the planning commission was part of the study group analyzing the options. While Springfield engineering firm Hanson Professionals took the lead and got most of the credit for the study, the planning commission worked in the background on projects like counting the number of residences which would be affected by each rail option.
Senior planner Jeff Fulgenzi, who handles the “big picture” of long-term strategic planning for the commission, grew up in Springfield. His family owns Fulgenzi’s Pizza and Pasta, near the Illinois State Fairgrounds. Before starting at the commission five years ago, he served eight years on the Sangamon County Board. As a board member, he says, he tried getting a bike plan in place that would connect the county with bike paths. Last month the county board and the Springfield City Council both adopted such a bike plan that was developed by the planning commission’s Linda Wheeland, senior planner in charge of transportation.
“Having something in place is tremendous,” Fulgenzi said. “I don’t think we could have gotten that done 15 years ago. It takes time, and we’re making a difference. Our goal was to present information that’s trusted into their hands.”
Fulgenzi’s job involves helping local governments make the best use of their resources and stay ahead of trends. He studies a community’s housing stock, water capacity, population growth and other factors to devise a plan for economic stability. He also provides staff support for projects like the Citizens Efficiency Committee, which looks for ways to streamline government in Springfield and Sangamon County.
As a former county board member, lobbyist and bureaucrat, Fulgenzi understands that planning is a good start, but the follow-through is often much tougher.
“We often hear the phrase that there’s no planning,” he says. “I would disagree. There’s a fair amount of planning, but what we lack is implementation, and there are reasons for that.”
Besides the money and political clout that implementing a grand plan usually requires, Fulgenzi says it also requires “a constituency to really care and understand those things.”
“I grew up in this community, so I care about it,” he said. “I’m one who believes we don’t inherit the world from our ancestors; we gift it to our grandchildren. What are we going to do and what are we going to present to our children?”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.