Planner Spotlight: Valerie Smith, AICP

Current Position: Senior Planner, Growth Management Services, Washington State Department of Commerce 
Total years of planning: 10 years
Hobbies: Traveling! I enjoy hiking with friends, and I have a few adventures lined up to explore the northwest part of the state. After living in Eastern Washington for seven years, I’ve developed an interest in agriculture, specifically vineyards. I love to learn about the viticulture and vinology associated with the winemaking process. My favorites wineries to visit are the ones that I can hike too!
Hometown: Plymouth, Michigan
Favorite Places: Joseph, Oregon in the summertime; Yakima, Washington in the fall (hop harvest); the Island of St. Maarten in the wintertime (yes, I’ve experienced the jet blast on the beach); and of course, my hometown of Plymouth.

Why did you choose a career in planning? I was a Civil Engineering major at Michigan State University and in the fall of sophomore year, I decided that I didn’t “love” engineering… surprise, surprise. I’ve always had an interest in architecture, but MSU doesn’t have an architecture program, so I began researching other universities to potentially transfer to. I was reading the prerequisites for Kansas State University’s Architecture Program and came across a class called “Intro to Urban Planning.” I was intrigued because I’d never heard of it before, so I clicked on the class description… BOOM, epiphany! Combining civil engineering, architecture, environment, design, history, places, spaces, sociology, etc. HOW HAVE I NEVER HEARD OF THIS BEFORE!? I switched my researching efforts to Urban Planning and discovered that Michigan State University had a program and that it was actually one of the first in the country, how cool!? The next week I switched majors and began the long process of explaining to my parents that “This is a legit career. No, I won’t be an engineer and make truckloads of money, but I’ll love what I am doing, and that’s the most important thing, right?” I later proved it was the best fit for me when I was raking in 4.0s in all of my UP classes.

As it turns out, I’ve gone into the “family business,” so to speak. On my mom’s side, we are related to Eliel and Eero Saarinen (known for the Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis; Eliel was a city planner, and Eero, an architect, and furniture designer).

Why did you decide to be a planner in Washington?  I’d like to say because of my appreciation for the state’s Growth Management Act, Washington’s scenic vistas, and the great people of Washington State. Truth be told, when I graduated from Michigan State University in 2008, the economy in Michigan was worse than any in the country, and so I was forced to look for work elsewhere. I applied for an Associate Planner position with Benton County, WA, and got the job one month before graduation. After five years with Benton County, I moved to a Senior Planner position with the City of Yakima. I’ve since moved to Olympia for a job with Commerce and I am really enjoying exploring Western Washington and working with localities on the “wet” side of the state.

What projects/initiatives are you currently working on? As a Senior Planner for the Department of Commerce, I provide technical assistance to jurisdictions in the Northwest Region (e.g. Whatcom County, Skagit County, Island County, San Juan County, and King County and the cities within). I am also the in-house expert on topics such as Capital Facilities Planning and the Buildable Lands Program. Commerce just began working on the Buildable Lands Guidance Update project, and that should take up the majority of my time in the next 18 months. Occasionally I assist in writing bill analyses during the legislative session, as well as providing information and workshops to the legislature on planning topics.

I currently serve as secretary of the Infrastructure Assistance Coordinating Council (IACC). This is a team of state agency representatives who provide training and funding for infrastructure projects and jurisdictions across the state. We hold an annual conference in Wenatchee in the fall.

What was your first planning-related job? I was an intern for the City of Plymouth (Michigan) Downtown Development Authority.

What advice would you give a new planner? Stay passionate, stay positive! In my experience, planning touches every aspect of city and county government. It seemed like there was never a Yakima City Council meeting during which we didn’t have a planning item on the agenda. There are many challenges that come with government work, and as they are sometimes controversial issues that arise with our work as planners, it’s important to stay passionate about planning and reflect on the good things you’ve accomplished. Also, try to find a “pet project” that gets you excited about your job; something to write home about!

What do you wish you had known when you started your career? All of us newbies come into the workforce filled with planning theory, best practices, and the knowledge of what constitutes “good planning” based on examples from all over the world. Planning school doesn’t teach us how to write a staff report or follow a public process and develop the “public record,” though these are all skills that can be learned on the job. What can’t be taught in school are the skills for working a permit counter, dealing with irate (passionate) citizens, leadership, confidence, and knowledge that comes with time spent on the job. When I started my career, I wish I had understood the value of tapping into the institutional knowledge and experience of those who had been working as planners in Washington State for many more years than me. I’ve since learned the importance of networking and utilizing the experience and know-how of my colleagues for help with big issues. So, my advice for those starting their career: find a mentor, be a sponge, and learn as much as you can from them before they retire! *With this caveat: do not settle for “this is the way we’ve always done it;” bring your own knowledge and critical thinking skills to the mentor/mentee relationship. Do not be afraid to offer ideas and ask questions—you’d be surprised at what you can bring to the table, even with only six months on the job.

If you were not a planner what profession would you likely be in? I have developed an interest in graphic design. Designing wine labels, or book covers would be fun. Maybe that’s a good idea for my retirement plan?

Do you have any favorite websites/tools/blogs that relate to planning or your job that you’d like to share?

a) I recently subscribed to the Sightline newsletter. I’ve been diving deep into past articles and getting lost down a few rabbit holes; it’s been very interesting! 

b) Ever since starting work in Washington State, I’ve always appreciated the Municipal Research Services Center (MRSC) website; they have such extensive information on all things relating to state and local government. I visit their website often and use their search function almost daily. It’s like Google, but better, because it’s catered to Washington State specifically.

I also check weekly for new articles from Strong Towns. In the fall of 2016, the Northwest Section Planners’ Forum held a Strong Towns’ Curbside Chat, and ever since I have found their website and podcasts to be interesting. They challenge me to think beyond and try new perspectives when tackling issues, both personally and professionally.

Return to the January/February issue of The Washington Planner