Monday, September 28, 2009

Project Development Class Simulation...

Well, I suppose its fitting that my first Land Use Prof blog post will occur just minutes before the Land Planning and Development course that I teach here at Faulkner.

This semester, I've eliminated the textbooks and hornbooks and replaced them with a semester long simulated development project.  For the project, I selected a real parcel of land in the Montgomery city limits and will have the students "develop" it from start to end (in a legal context). 

I'm including a series of site visits to the parcel as well as visits to the register of deeds and planning department.  I've also invited a series of non-lawyers (engineers, architects, developers, real estate agents, etc.) to participate in certain classes since land development is, by its very nature, quite interdisciplinary.

The students will, among other tasks, research deeds, draft letters of intent/real estate contracts, prepare federal, state, and local regulatory submissions, and engage in mock hearings before local land use agencies.

We're about a month or so into the course and things are going very smoothly (knock on YellaWood (TM)).

Has anyone else engaged in this type of simulated exercise while teaching a land use-type course?

If so, we'd love to hear about the good and the bad that you encountered.  Any lessons learned?

Chad Emerson

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It's great to hear about your course, Chad! Kudos to you for creating the course, which takes a huge amount of work but has enormous educational benefits for the students.

I do something similar but a little different with my Land Use & Planning Law course at the University of Louisville. First, it is an interdisciplinary course. Slightly less than half the class is typically made up of graduate students in urban planning, who are required to take the course. Slightly more than half the class is typically made up of law students. I have had graduate students in business administration, public administration, and political science in the course too.

The course centers around 2 large projects in which the students work in interdisciplinary teams, just as they will have to in the "real world." The first is a major "service learning" project for an actual nonprofit organization or government agency. The students prepare a report for the organization or agency on a major, complex issue or problem. The report identifies and analyzes various planning, regulatory, and legal options available and typically includes relatively sophisticated graphics (unlike most legal writing). Often these projects involve site visits, field trips, and ongoing communications with the recipients. The recipients are told up-front and then when the report is delivered that the report does not constitute legal advice and representation and that they are urged to consult with legal counsel before relying on the report. For an example of a report on the Darby Creek Watershed in Oldham County, Kentucky, see the link near the very bottom of my Center's page on our healthy watershed land use initiative:

The second project is a simulation of a Louisville Metro Board of Zoning Adjustment (BOZA) hearing on a conditional use permit for a biofuel plant in the heavily industrial but primarily low-income African-American West End of Louisville. The simulation is based on an actual CUP applicationt that was withdrawn when strong community opposition arose. Students are assigned specific roles with the biofuel company, the community opponents and supporters, city staff, and BOZA members. They are provided with a detailed case file from the actual conflict, but they typically obtain or develop further information for their hearing presentations. After a lengthy hearing (as is typical with controversial CUP applications like this), the BOZA members deliberate and vote, and then I give them feedback on my observation of the simulation and their performances.

I should note, though, that I do use a combination of law and planning materials (books, articles, cases, staff reports and planning commission minutes from when I served as Chair of the Anaheim Planning Commission in California, etc.) for assigned reading and class discussion that will give students the fundamental foundations in land use law & planning before (or while) they tackle complex real-world issues.

I have been exceptionally pleased with the overall quality of the students' work. Two-thirds of the reports I've received over the years and over 80% of the simulation performances I've observed substantially exceed the quality typically produced by practicing lawyers and planners. However, I have had some work that has been disappointing. There are a couple of observations that I have drawn from this: 1) students find it difficult to work in teams and have to learn how to work in teams effectively in order for their projects to be successful; while I teach them some key principles about teamwork and team dynamics, in the end I cannot make their teams function well -- they have to do this themselves, learning by their attempts to be successful; and 2) each team needs at least one motivated and quality-attentive leader to encourage, facilitate, or prod his/her classmates. Of course, in the real world, interdisciplinary land development or land planning teams have a range of success to failure, depending on team dynamics. This is a valuable lesson for the students.

More importantly, I have been quite pleased with the level of understanding and skills with which the students leave the class. Yes, they do read Euclid and Lucas and discuss procedural due process, standards for variances, and the requirement that zoning be consistent with the comprehensive plan. And so forth. But they also wrestle with complex issues like nonpoint source runoff in a developing rural/suburban area, the capacity of a local metropolitan area to reduce the contributions of land use & development to climate change, and the application of CUP standards to a proposed biofuel plant strongly opposed by a low-income African-American community that experiences environmentally disparate and burdensome conditions. They don't just read about theses issues and discuss them in an academic setting, but they become involved in addressing them in both service-learning and simulated experiences.

It is a lot of work. I average 20 hours of work per week on this course, starting well before the semester starts and continuing until I finish grading their reflection papers (a third component of the course requiring each individual to reflect on one or more lessons learned from the project or simulation in light of material studied in class). But it is well worth it.

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Chad. All best wishes, Tony Arnold
Boehl Chair in Property & Land Use and Chair of the Center for Land Use & Environmental Responsibility, University of Louisville; Huber Hurst Visiting Eminent Scholar, University of Florida Levin College of Law, Fall 2009

Posted by: Tony Arnold | Oct 9, 2009 6:50:40 AM


Thanks for the post and thanks for the description of what sounds like a fantastic course.

I'd love to have an interdisciplinary mix of students. That would really assist in the planning side of the simulation and possibly open doors for my graphical and GIS related assignments/simulations.

You've definitely given me some great ideas to incorporate into the course.

Thanks, Chad.

Posted by: Chad Emerson | Oct 9, 2009 8:37:34 AM