With football season behind us, March arrives with bracket talk and the discussion of college basketball teams you have never heard of. Some of us spend hours researching or contacting that old college buddy to help fill our brackets, while others choose teams based on names or colors. No matter your strategy, March Madness and the brackets are here!
Anyone can fill out a bracket, and literally anyone can win a bracket pool no matter their knowledge base, which is what makes March Madness so much fun. This only works because the process and the rules are specific, definite, and predictable (not by which team wins but how the bracket game is played). While zoning ordinances are not nearly as exciting as March Madness, we can build off the success of the brackets in March Madness.
The last thing a municipality wants is to be hauled into court to debate the constitutionality of its zoning ordinance. But having a clear, specific, definite, and predictable zoning ordinance does not just help limit lawsuits, it helps stakeholders – including the municipality, residents, property owners and developers – create better projects.
A clear, specific, definite, and predictable zoning ordinance should provide a clear, specific, definite, and predictable process for land use applications. Such a process has many benefits. For example, and at a superficial but important level, it helps reduce the number of phone calls and questions received by the zoning officer and other staff members by making it easier for residents, property owners, and developers to answer their own questions. It also permits property owners and developers to better predict the timing and needs for a specific application. Moreover, it permits the reinforcement of municipal decisions because they become more consistent. That efficiency reduces municipal administrative costs, makes it easier for residents to engage in the process, and reduces the time and money required by property owners and developers to work through the process. It really is a win-win-win.
To create a clearly defined process, a municipality must critically review its ordinance, keep it up to date, and consider the steps a property owner must go through to secure various land use approvals. Remember, ordinances that are vague and indefinite are to be interpreted broadly and in favor of the applicant. As a result, vague and indefinite ordinances often lead to battles between various stakeholders, including the municipality, residents, and the applicant.
But there are also more practical and simplistic things that can be done to reduce the municipality’s administrative burden and make things easier for residents and applicants. For example, some municipalities provide on their websites submission deadlines and schedules, meeting schedules, or even flow-charts that depict the application process. Others make it easy to find relevant ordinances, maps, and form agreements by providing links on the website. Within those ordinances, some municipalities provide examples or illustrations and charts to assist with interpretation.
It also is important for municipalities to consider the necessity and efficiency of meetings. For example, what uses or requested changes do they want to go through the special exception, variance, or conditional use processes? It is no surprise that many smaller business and individuals do not have the time, money, or expertise to present an application at a hearing. There are times where a hearing is overkill. To support those stakeholders and limit the administrative burden, a trend in ordinances is to permit more uses by right while protecting the public with appropriate criteria for the zoning officer to review. Similarly, if the same variance or waiver has been approved several times (often because a provision is outdated), it might be time to reconsider that section of the ordinance to make it more permissive.
Perhaps most importantly, municipalities should encourage, and applicants should seek out, pre-application meetings. Those meetings not only allow for better designed projects, but they also provide an opportunity to discuss resident engagement – whether it is needed and, if it is, to what level. As we have discussed before, many issues can be nipped in the bud if addressed early in the process. Pre-application meetings are a great way to figure out what those issues might be. So, let’s work together to create a clear, specific, definite, and predictable process from the start. As importantly, let’s communicate it to the stakeholders so they do not create significant issues out of something that could easily have been addressed. And as always, please reach out to one of our members of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group to learn more about these and other collaboration methods we use, or for any other land use questions.
This post is the second in a 5-part series. The first post can be accessed HERE.