Planning Liaisons Connect with the Community

Asheville residents are known to pay close attention to planning and development issues in their area, and no one has a better handle on the makeup of neighborhoods than the people who live in them. That’s why the City of Asheville’s Planning and Development Department has a group of planners who regularly interact with residents, neighborhood associations and other groups to hear ideas about growth and development.

Teams of Community Planning Liaisons are assigned to five sections of the city to focus on listening to input and use it to determine neighborhood priorities and help direct planning efforts. They are also a point of contact for land use and development questions. The program, begun about 18 months ago, has already resulted in an increased level of interaction between residents and city staff. And, says Planner Jessica Bernstein, residents have a first line of communication with the Planning and Development Department that can help navigate the department and city ordinances.

“[Planning and Development Director] Judy Daniel wanted each section of the city to have a point of contact,” says Bernstein, who serves as liaison for North Asheville. “If they have a question, we can get them to the right person to talk to. They have a go-to-guy.”

The Planning and Development Department also assigns a “Planner of the Day” (POD) each day to field calls or talk to those who come to the Department, and direct them to an appropriate city staffer that can address their concern or question.  POD’s are assigned at City Hall and at the Development Services Center, as those locations each tend to get different types of questions.

Meeting with community members and having an ear open to feedback also helps the department identify trends and issues from the community, and have a chance to get residents thinking about planning and development issues long before a draft document comes to Asheville City Council.

“So often, when planners were seen in public, they were presenting development staff reports,” says Planner and Central Asheville liaison Blake Esselstyn. “We felt it was important to get neighborhoods involved with development, and we could take a proactive role in making that happen.”

Community liaisons share notes with each other to find trends that are common to all neighborhoods or issues that may cross over into two or more different sections.

So far, says Neighborhood/Volunteer Coordinator Marsha Stickford, residents have responded enthusiastically. “We get calls regularly,” Stickford says. “It really does foster this idea that we’re all in this together.”

Stickford, who works in the city’s Community Relations Division, regularly takes note of upcoming neighborhood association and other community meetings, and makes sure that the appropriate community planner is notified. She encourages organizations that meet about planning issues to contact her so she can pass the word along to the right person. “If we know they are out there, we can make that connection,” Stickford says.

To contact Neighborhood/Volunteer Coordinator Marsha Stickford about a community or neighborhood meetings, call (828) 259-5506 or email