APMM Series: Zoning and Community Health: A Deep Dive with Ben Estell and R.J. Susko

Posted by: on June 21st, 2024

Zoning may be one of the least understood and most under-appreciated aspects of local government. But my guests today see zoning through the lens of community health and want you to come along with them to better understand how zoning and planning impact our lives.

Ben Estell is manager of Dormont Borough outside of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County Pennsylvania and R.J. Susko is Planning and Development Director in the Town of McCandless in Allegheny County.

In this episode, RJ and Ben discuss the crucial role zoning and community planning play in enhancing community health.

RJ and Ben highlight the paths to their current roles and emphasize the human impact of zoning decisions. They explore topics such as transparency, public engagement, and the challenges of implementing zoning changes that balance community needs and environmental considerations. The conversation underscores the importance of proactive planning and the iterative nature of zoning regulations to foster resilient and thriving communities.

If you like your comprehensive planning to be entertaining and even a little sexy, you have come to the right place.

This episode is part of our 2024 APMM series. APMM is dedicated to the promotion of professional and effective local government management in Pennsylvania.

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Guest Bios

RJ Susko serves as the Planning and Development Director for the Town of McCandless, Allegheny County, PA. Ms. Susko holds a Master of Public Administration Urban Affairs and Planning concentration, from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA), and a B.S. in Public Health from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A lifelong asker of “how does that work?”, Ms. Susko has been active in the municipal management world for several years, focusing on process improvement, change management, and right-sizing regulations to empower communities to reach their full potential.

Most recently in her current role as Planning and Development Director at the Town of McCandless, RJ has overseen the Town’s first wholesale zoning update in the last 50 years, involving a complete re-write and restructuring of the McCandless land use and development codes.

Benjamin Ryan Estell serves as Manager for the Borough of Dormont in Allegheny County, PA. Ben holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a B.A. in French language and Culture from The Ohio State University. He received his ICMA certification in 2015.

Has led numerous impactful projects, such as the Potomac Avenue Design and Reconstruction, an award-winning storm water management project, and a 5-Year Strategic Planning Process, which has involved significant public input and research. Most recently led a comprehensive zoning rewrite that brought Form-Based Code and Transit Oriented Development into the Pittsburgh suburbs and created the transformational catalyst for a truly welcoming community.


[00:0005:07]: Introduction and RJ’s background in community development.

[05:0810:18]: Ben’s childhood experience with a hazardous waste incinerator and its influence on his career.

[10:1915:00]: Discussion on transparency in zoning and public access to information.

[15:0120:10]: Historical context of zoning and its impact on different communities.

[20:1125:00]: Challenges in current zoning, including parking minimums and density issues.

[25:0130:15]: RJ’s practical example of implementing a chicken ordinance.

[30:1635:00]: Ben’s explanation of Dormont’s unique zoning approach.

[35:0140:00]: Importance of ongoing community engagement in planning processes.

[40:0145:00]: Human aspect of zoning and its effect on community health and livability.

[45:0151:00]: Long-term impact of zoning changes and the necessity of iterative design.

About Nancy J. Hess

I help leaders pioneer extraordinary change through high engagement and whole systems approaches that focus on HR and People.