The Zoning Code makes the Comprehensive Plan Illegal? WTF?




I can’t build what the Comprehensive Plan requires, because the zoning won’t allow it? WTF???!


Warning! Planning Geek stuff ahead….

Most state have a law on the books that requires municipalities to adopt a Comprehensive Plan (called a General Plan in California) that will guide local investments in transportation, schools, parks, fire trucks, hospitals, and sewer plants.  Once the Comprehensive Plan (Comp. Plan) has been adopted, the municipality is supposed to revise their local zoning codes and development ordinances to bring them in line with the goals and policies of the Comp. Plan.  So the Comp. Plan is the big idea, the thoughtfully considered suite of policies that should guide the finer-grained rules and regulations that developers are required to follow if they want to build something.

Here’s a common problem.  After going through a long string of cathartic public meetings, charrettes, visioning sessions, etc. to prepare the Comp. Plan, Downtown Master Plan, Corridor Plan, etc., the mere mortals that staff the local planning department or sit on the planning commission and the city council are kinda burned out.  The unglamorous task of revising the zoning code tends to get delayed or forgotten.  Sometimes there is  just no money in the budget to get the zoning code revisions done.

If developer shows up proposing a project that is in line with the general policies of the new Comp. Plan but violates the specific rules of the old zoning code, the only path forward is some sort of Planned Development Permit (PD), Planned Unit Development (PUD), or some similar additional process designed to allow greater flexibility that is allowed under the letter of the zoning code.  PD’s and PUD’s require require additional applications, additional review by the planning commission, and typically a public hearing.  In the meantime, if someone wants to build some crappy project that violates the policies of the new General Plan, but is specifically allowed under the old zoning code, they could do that as an as-of-right project. That’s just bullshit.  Imagine how local residents who participated in all those visioning workshops for the Comp. Plan are going to feel when they see that crappy project get built.

I think that putting this statement on the front cover of every Comp Plan to save people a lot of time, money and frustration:

“WARNING! This is a feel good scam. We have no intention of actually changing the rules to allow you to build any of it without special permission and a number of public hearings with local residents who have not read this document.”

If your community wants to see the vision of their Comp. Plan actually get built, get serious about changing your zoning code.


4 thoughts on “The Zoning Code makes the Comprehensive Plan Illegal? WTF?

  1. Jason Haremza May 27, 2016 / 7:48 pm

    Exactly. Recent example in the Town of Penfield, NY. Recent-ish comp plan (2011) specially calls for two privately owned golf courses to be protected open space. The zoning, however, remains single family residential. Fast forward to earlier this year, golf course owners want to sell to a developer of (go figure) single family houses. Residents lose their shit, assuming, per the comp plan, that the land would be open space. Failure of municipality to follow through on their comp plan with actual land use laws.

    FYI New York State does not require that municipalities adopt either a comp plan or zoning.

  2. Tom E. Pace June 6, 2016 / 11:11 pm

    I completely agree with this article!

    My state, Colorado, requires a master plan (what my city called it). The dirty secret of these plans is they are not meant for personal feedback to the city council and staff. They are meant for state bureaucrats. Very few of the objectives listed in the plan are ever accomplished.

    Every time an economic development committee, planning board, or city department wants to apply for a state grant, there is almost always a section asking how the grant would improve the community based on your municipality’s master plan. If your master plan lines up with what the granting agency is looking for that cycle, you have a better chance to get money.

    This means plans are a scatter shot of all the most popular or trending issues customized to the municipality’s existing infrastructure, layout, and governmental mindset.

    My small city updated the plan a few years ago with a six figure price tag. This was done nearly twenty years after the last master plan update. Hiring another firm to go through planning and zoning codes to update those from as far back as the early 1960s would have cost at least double.

    Few to no small municipalities have the spare cash lying around to do that much planning at one time.

  3. Jeremiah September 6, 2016 / 5:38 pm

    This made me laugh. Great article. I sit on the Historic District Commission for my city and zoning ordinances are a joke. Our own “Comp Plan” was written many moons ago and continues to sit ceremoniously on someone’s shelf. Meanwhile we are all left to slog through the idiocracy of a zoning ordinance that was written for suburban districts during The Great Sprawl. Oy vey.

  4. Tim December 17, 2016 / 10:37 am

    Issues relating to the implementation of a disconnected, conflicting Comp Plan/LDC are a driving force behind an effort to incorporate a large portion of south Walton County Florida.

    “ABSW’s mission is to seek more effective governance and local representation for South Walton to preserve and enhance its unique character, property values and quality of life.”

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