Why does the District need a planning commission? It would help educate the city government, developers and citizens in every neighborhood about the planning process, which currently is not well understood. Yes, we have a comprehensive plan, but it is, in effect, a triumph of good graphics and ballyhoo over substance. A planning commission could help citizens and public officials understand this and set their sights higher. The D.C. Council vacuously cites the comprehensive plan, but always manages to find a way to defer final action on anything the plan suggests. Then, in haste, it adopts whatever has emerged. This amounts to political flatulence, rather than legislating as the law requires.
A planning commission for the District would provide some parity with the National Capital Planning Commission, a heavily funded agency interested primarily in the federal government’s holdings. The NCPC also calls the shots, ultimately, on whatever the local planning and development office produces in the way of a comprehensive plan.
There is no legal barrier to the city establishing a planning commission. The power of the mayor to do exactly this was confirmed in a 2003 legal opinion by Covington & Burling. Copies of that memorandum of law written for the Committee of 100 were furnished to members of the Council, then-Mayor Tony Williams and Office of Planning officials. They ignored it. The same memorandum was given to the current mayor and his director of planning. They, too, have ignored it. A planning commission might, after all, provide some sort of check on the mayor’s and deputy mayor’s adventures in development.