New Texas Citizen Planner program to start Sept. 25

HOUSTON — Starting in September, coastal community officials can turn to a new training program for local planning and development issues.

The Texas Coastal Citizen Planner is an eight-course program that covers trends and best practices concerning community planning and development, designed specifically for local and appointed officials, according to Steven Mikulencak, coordinator for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s Coastal Watershed Program.

The evening courses will be held Sept. 25 through early December in the Houston-Galveston and the Corpus Christi regions, Mikulencak said. The registration fee is $100 until Sept. 18 and then is $125.  Texas classes will be video linked.

Information, registration and a course calendar can be found at http://CitizenPlanner.tamu.edu.

“Local officials may enter public life with an ethic of service, but they may lack the planning know-how to turn a community’s vision and plan into reality,” Mikulencak said. “This program is designed to address that knowledge gap.”

A range of legal authorities and planning practices are available to Texas communities, he said, and the course will provide a comprehensive overview of options available. Instructors from several disciplines will lead each course and offer Texas-based case studies of planning-in-action. Course time will be dedicated to fostering peer-based learning.

“The need for a program like this in Texas is pretty obvious,” said councilwoman Joanna Sharp Dawson of League City. “In the Houston region alone, hundreds of locally elected officials are sworn into office every election cycle.”

Dawson and an advisory committee of 11 other local officials, university researchers and planners have been helping to shape the new Texas program, Mikulencak said.

Officials and city staff juggle numerous local duties such as working with the public to create plans, he said. Local governments then use these plans to adopt policies and guide decision-making on specific proposals about land use, natural resources, and economic redevelopment. Local governments also review site plan proposals submitted by developers to make sure they conform to local laws.

“These planning decisions can have significant long-term impacts, shaping how fast communities grow and the quality of development,” Mikulencak added. “Regional trends in public health, water usage, land conservation, and post-disaster recovery costs hinge on decisions made at the local level. These decisions also offer opportunities and challenges that local officials may be unaware of when coming into office.”

He said communities near the Gulf also have to contend with their own planning issue: hurricanes.

Events like the 1900 Storm, Celia, Allison, Katrina and Ike offer important planning lessons for coastal communities, he noted. The program curriculum will examine how plans and policies can work together to build communities that are better prepared and recover faster.

Texas is the latest state to develop a Citizen Planner program, which is modeled after similar programs from six other states. The Michigan State University Citizen Planner program has been offering local training courses for more than 15 years, and PlanVirginia has been training officials since 1950.   Although the educational formats vary, each program has the same goal of providing a broad-based planning education for local officials, according to Mikulencak.

 The final course of the new fall program will be a capstone exercise using the  Community Health and Resources Management,  or CHARM, scenario planning tool — a collaborative and computer-based planning exercise developed by the Texas Coastal Watershed Program. Users of the tool can digitally paint development patterns on a tabletop map that updates in real time economic impacts and environmental indicators, he said.

 “It’s an engaging way to get a handle on the links between growth, land use, and local impacts, both environmental and economic. Plus, participants get to test the practices they’ve learned over the fall,” Mikulencak said.

 Trainees who complete the program will receive a non-credit certification as a Citizen Planner. The training and certificate signify the local official’s commitment to public service and to better solutions for their communities.

 The program is administered as a joint project of AgriLife Extension, Texas Sea Grant and the Texas Coastal Watershed Program.

For more information contact Mikulencak at smikulencak@tamu.edu.

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