There is an American architectural concept called “form ever follows function”, first used by Louis Sullivan in 1896 to describe a design style for skyscrapers. A building’s functional use would dictate its shape and appearance. Support beams, columns, and infrastructure, usually hidden, were seen to various degrees in an outward manner. For planning and zoning commissions, there is a similar concept, evident in the formal processes followed to review and to decide upon land use applications.
Why is this so? First, all regulations, ordinances, and state and federal laws must be followed to keep everything in good legal order. Second, all discussions, actions and votes must have rules (such as Roberts Rules of Order) to keep everything proceeding in a focused, not freewheeling, manner. How your town’s zoning and subdivision regulations are administered and enforced is at the crucial crux of where the ideas and ideals of municipal planning and the words and intents of zoning regulations connect and collide with the realities of land use activities. This all has legal underpinnings and overtones. These are reasons why much attention is paid to the details of the process you see at planning and zoning commission meetings.
Here’s a hypothetical example: a special permit application for a new office building. The process followed in general terms includes a review of the application, a vote to accept it and to schedule a public hearing, the start and conduct of the hearing, the close of the hearing, the commission’s deliberation, and finally a vote on the application. This process follows a step-by-step approach within a defined time line, as prescribed by state statutes and the zoning regulations. What can and cannot occur, and what must occur, during each step of the process is likewise defined. A flowchart of the process and a copy of the regulations are used as checklists.
The Commission reviews the application to determine what it is all about and whether or not it is complete. Not all applications are the same and not all applicants do their diligence in providing a complete application. Once the application is accepted, a public hearing is scheduled and the public and property abutters are notified. For the example we’re using, state statutes require the hearing to be started within 65 days; for it to be completed within 35 days (unless the applicant agrees to extensions totaling no more than 65 additional days); and for a decision on the application to be determined with 65 days of the public hearing’s close. The Commission has much to do since if no decision is made by the last deadline, then the application is approved by default.
Mindful of this time constraint, the Commission must follow all aspects of the regulations and laws, no matter how minor they may be. All of this needs to happen in a way that allows the applicant, each Commissioner, other town government agencies, adjoining towns, and members of the public to ask questions and to provide comments. Professional engineering, landscaping or other reviews may need to be done. If the land use application is complex and/or controversial, then the Commission has even more to do.
During the public hearing, the Commission conducts itself in a formal manner. If you have attended such a planning and zoning commission meeting, then you would have seen the visibly structured form of the process based upon its function: to satisfy all statutory and regulatory requirements in an objective manner (free of actual or perceived conflicts of interest); to maintain decorum so everyone can have an opportunity to participate following the principles of open government and fair play without lettings things get out of hand; to get as much information as possible to make a wise decision; and to meet deadlines. Although this may lend a “no frills” appearance to commission meetings (although moments of appropriate levity often appear, just as architect Sullivan added aesthetics to his building designs), it is far from being utilitarian. The value of doing things this way is more than the sum of its parts. It is one way – a very important way – of legally guiding your town’s growth.
After the public hearing is officially closed, the Commission takes the time to deliberate on the application. There is formality to this part of the process: no further comments are accepted and the Commission reviews only the information that it has received during the public hearing (with a few rare exceptions). Many statements of fact may be entered into the record to show that all regulations and applicable laws are being followed. Once deliberation ends, the Commission votes on the application. Even this has formality to it, such as the type of majority needed to approve the application (state statutes have different rules depending upon the circumstances) and a clear delineation of the “ayes and “nays” of the vote.
I have simplified this example. Some land use applications are easy and some are not. Many applications may be reviewed at one meeting. The challenge is to make the best decisions possible that balance different things, such as your town’s regulations and ordinances, state and federal laws, people’s individual property rights, and your community’s concerns and needs. To do all of these things, while being not just efficient but also meaningfully productive within time constraints, in a consistent way from application to application, requires a defined process to be followed each time. That is why your town’s planning and zoning commission has a formal structure to its proceedings. It may not look sexy (yet it is always interesting), but it is after all “form ever following function” to do many things the right way that planning and zoning commissions are tasked to do.
Happy New Year everyone!