MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A West Virginia University initiative born out of the pandemic is benefiting rural and urban communities across the mid-Atlantic.
In spring 2020, COVID-19 canceled the fifth annual Mountain State Land Use Academy. Founded by the Land Use and Sustainable Development Clinic at the WVU College of Law, the academy informs community leaders about issues in planning, economic development, resiliency and the law.
The pandemic shutdown did not stop law professor Jesse Richardson and attorney Jared Anderson, who both work in the clinic. They began reaching out to associates and, within weeks, they established what has become the Mid-Atlantic Planning Collaboration.
"Right after the pandemic started, Jesse reached out because he wanted to create a way that we in the Mid-Atlantic area could teach more people about issues that impact our region," said Alan Feinberg, a representative of the Maryland Chapter of the American Planning Association. "He and everyone in the Land Use clinic take a bird's eye approach to planning, in that they look out to the entire area around them during their efforts so they can do things to benefit everyone."
The first virtual meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Planning Collaboration in 2020 included members of the Virginia and Maryland Chapters of the APA, the Rural Planning Caucus of Virginia and the WVU Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic.
Now, two years later, the collaboration has expanded considerably with the addition of the West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, North Carolina and National Capital Area chapters of the APA, the Maryland State Planning Department and the Maryland Planning Commissioners Association.
"The personal connections we've made during this time have been great," said Feinberg. "I have had meaningful, robust conversations with people I have never met in the flesh."
In addition to being a professional network, the Mid-Atlantic Planning Collaboration offers free live educational webinars, which are available on its YouTube channel. Each webinar usually features a speaker with an urban/suburban perspective and a speaker with a rural perspective to appeal to planning professionals in every type of community in the region. Topics are chosen based on what members feel are relevant to their respective communities, and they bring in speakers and create educational materials.
"We find that, although urban and rural planning is different, lessons from rural planning can inform urban planning and vice versa," Richardson said. "The sharing and collaboration lead to the development of new and different strategies or the use of a particular strategy in a different context."
According to Richardson, the webinar series has benefited planners in West Virginia in particular because they have historically had few educational opportunities relevant to their work in the state.
"The West Virginia Chapter of the American Planning Association was starting a reboot of its organization at the same time that we started these webinars," Richardson said. "Being able to present the webinars with speakers from West Virginia and topics pertinent to West Virginia has helped to energize the state chapter."
To date, Mid-Atlantic Planning Collaboration has provided 16 webinars on a wide range of topics. It is currently hosting a six-part series on planning in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Land use and planning professionals can earn required continuing education credits by watching the webinars. So far, the webinars have reached certified planners, members of local planning commissions and zoning appeal boards, and citizen planners from 27 states and at least three foreign countries.
This spring, the Mountain State Land Use Academy returned to an in-person conference with approximately 100 community leaders in attendance. Topics addressed ranged from broadband and historic preservation to resilient communities and land development ordinances.
That does not mean an end to the Mid-Atlantic Planning Collaboration.
"I don't think Jesse or I could have foreseen the huge amount of support from the various APA chapters or the high-level praise the collaboration has received across the country," Anderson said. "The collaboration means so much because we have brought together a great group of organizations that have grown organically and formed a singular mission of providing high quality, free content to planners throughout the region, including West Virginia."
The success of the Mid-Atlantic Planning Collaboration has been a pleasant surprise for Richardson.
"Little did I know that a somewhat desperate phone call to friends and colleagues in Virginia, prompted by the pandemic in 2020, would have such enormous benefits in so many different facets of planning in the state and across the region," he said.