Urban planners are scarce in suburban Philadelphia

10-member panel in Chester County has had 4 vacancies for year

January 07, 2001|By Diane Mastrull | Diane Mastrull,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Open land isn't the only thing that's scarce in the Philadelphia suburbs. Try finding someone who wants to be a county planner.

And if you do, call Bill Fulton. For nearly a year, Fulton, director of the Chester County Planning Commission, has been looking for candidates to fill four vacancies in a staff of 10. He has gone begging at planners' conventions, on college campuses and on the Internet, and he is getting desperate.

"I guess I could wait outside with a blanket," he said from his West Chester office, "and throw it over people's heads."

Crunch time

For counties such as Chester that are undergoing record-pace development, a shortage of planners could not come at a worse time. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, state lawmakers have turned up the heat on municipalities to manage their growth more wisely. Yet the experts needed to guide them are increasingly hard to find.

County planners have no power to dictate how land is used by townships and boroughs. They are advisers, providing the know-how that most local officials lack but that is critical to development decisions. Will a new shopping mall jam the streets with traffic three towns away? Will paving a farm for an office complex send pollutants into a nearby stream?

Getting answers to such questions is taking longer than ever. The delays play havoc with projects ranging from farmland preservation to neighborhood revitalization.

In Bucks County, many developments for older adults are being approved by municipalities and built before the county Planning Commission - spread thin by four vacancies - has been able to research their impact on the housing market.

"I wish we could be leaders on planning issues," said Lynn Bush, county planning director. But with such a short staff, "we can't be."

In Montgomery County

In Montgomery County, seven municipalities want to join forces to design a regional-growth plan - a strategy encouraged by state officials to prevent haphazard sprawl. They have been told that, if they want county guidance, they will have to wait."[Local officials] said, `We're all ready to go,' and we were like, `Well, we don't have anyone available to help you,'" county planner Mike Stokes said.

Stokes vowed to do some adjusting among his staff of 32 to overcome five vacancies and accommodate the communities.

Waning interest in public service, the lure of the private sector, university budget crunches - all have conspired to drain the planner pool, estimated at 60,000 nationwide.

Recruiting planners is an especially tough sell in Pennsylvania, where the pay is among the lowest in the country, according to a 1998 salary survey conducted by the American Planning Association.

In the commonwealth, the median salary for a planner with less than five years' experience was $28,500 - compared with $38,200 in New Jersey, $37,200 in Texas, $36,900 in California and $35,000 in Oregon. The survey found that planners working for law firms, developers and consultants typically made $56,000 to $82,000 a year.

"No matter how intent [Gov. Tom Ridge] and his administration are in bringing more professional insight to land use and growth, with it has to come a recognition by the counties and municipalities that competence is going to be more expensive," said James DeAngelis, a planner and associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

In New Jersey, planners are slightly more abundant, though still a precious commodity. Not only are salaries higher there, the requirements for state licensing are looser. Anyone can sit for the test and, if he or she passes, be called a planner.

To wear the title of planner in Pennsylvania, a person must have a master's degree in planning and must have credentials from the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Planning programs slip

It is odd that, in a state with such lofty educational requirements, degree programs for planners have just about dried up. Pennsylvania State University eliminated its public-planning curriculum about a decade ago; the University of Pittsburgh two years ago. The University of Pennsylvania has the only accredited planning program in the state. Many New Jersey agencies pull from Rutgers School of Planning and Public Policy in New Brunswick, as well as from Penn.

Public planning hasn't been a hot job since President John F. Kennedy rallied Americans to think about what they could do for their country, a mood that survived into the 1970s in the environmental movement.

Back then, Penn State and Pitt generated a steady stream of planning graduates, many of them trained in local-development law and eager to take county planning jobs in the state. At the peak of its program, Pitt graduated 40 planners a year.

Meeting the standards of state accreditation - high staffing levels, for instance - was costly, however. What's more, interest was seriously off. By the time Pitt folded its program, the graduating class totaled 15 students, according to associate professor DeAngelis.

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