Jeff 2021-2

One of the fundamental functions of your town’s planning and zoning commission is to guide your town’s growth and the effects it has on the many seen and unseen aspects of your community. Economic development is a part of this growth. This is a BIG topic. It is also in these economic times a most timely topic. As a member of Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission, I make decisions that affect the economic development of my town, so I will touch upon some aspects of it from a local perspective. 

Planning and zoning commissions do have a key role in economic development with a major impact, for good or for bad. Planning and zoning commissions know this (or should). Why is this so and how does it happen? Good questions. What municipal planning documents say about what your town wants, needs and does not want, and what the zoning regulations say about what your town permits and prohibits regarding different types of land use activities (businesses are a type of such activity), all have direct effects on the economic make-up of your town. 

Here are some examples what different towns do with their zoning regulations: 

  • Encourage small-sized businesses by setting limits for size, scale and bulk.
  • Prohibit certain types of businesses, such as heavy or dangerous industries.
  • Allow some types of business activities in specific areas but not in others, such as large office parks only in non-residential zoning districts, or small shops and home occupations in residential areas.
  • Set limits for the times of day and the days of the week during which certain activities can occur, such as businesses with lots of noise or truck traffic.
  • Prescribe details about signs, lighting, landscaping, water runoff control and infrastructure.
  • Set requirements for locations and specifications of parking spaces/lots and driveways/access ways.
  • Make available design guidelines to foster construction and building placements that are consistent with what is around them.
  • Have sets of permitting processes for the purpose of reviewing different types of business starts, expansions and relocations.

This list can go on and on. In fact, the entirety of your town’s zoning regulations can apply to the permit, review and approval process that businesses must follow. Some of the regulations may pertain to specific types of businesses or zoning districts. Other parts of the regulations are general or town-wide. 

Economic development, sustainability and stability are necessary for our communities. If economic development does not happen, then local jobs do not happen. Furthermore, diversification of the tax base becomes limited such that a large burden of it falls on homeowners/property owners to pay for town government’s functions, such as schools, roads, infrastructure, public safety, and public health). Thus, it becomes evident that the decisions made by a planning and zoning commission can encourage or discourage the local economy and its interconnectedness with the many other things in a community. By extension, what your town does can affect a neighboring town, and vice versa, and the Quiet Corner region. 

There are many competing interests changing over time that make up the convergence of planning, zoning and economic development. We do not want to stop appropriate economic development. A stagnant or declining economy is no fun. Yet, at the same time, we want to preserve, conserve and maintain the natural, cultural, historical, and quality of life characteristics of our communities. Planning and zoning commissions therefore spend a lot of time and hard work on finding the right balance of these various and varying things so as to guide economic development. It is important to avoid haphazard growth either because of a zeal for “growth for growth’s sake” or because of a lack of proper regulations. It is important to avoid unnecessary burdensome and expensive regulations that stunt economic growth. Again, it is a balance. 

There is no “one-size fits all” solution to the challenges that economic development poses for us. Your town is not one uniform place – it has different neighborhoods and areas. In addition, things in your town do not stay static – they change over time. So, planning and zoning commissions must always be reviewing and if necessary updating planning documents and zoning regulations. 

As with all things in your town, the business community is one of many co-existing things. This is important to acknowledge because planning and zoning commissions look at many things, such as maps of zoning districts and the locations of existing resources and factors (such as natural, cultural, historical, traffic, infrastructure, and recreational). Build-out maps identifying geographically various aspects and areas of projected municipal growth should include economic development. They are as useful as the other maps that help us gain a better understanding of the depth of all things in our towns. In fact, in this age of computer technology, these different maps (if in electronic form) could be overlaid onto each other in different ways to see how multiple things combine and interact (a topic of another article). 

It is often said, and I know it well from my own planning and zoning experience, that “smart” planning is necessary to bring about practical, common sense and meaningful zoning. The same applies to economic development. When your town updates its Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), one part of that document must be about economic development. This is necessary so as to try as best as possible to address and anticipate issues in the short-term and the long-term. This should dovetail with a review of what has and what has not worked in the past. Decisions made in the here and now often have long-term consequences, either good or bad. 

So, the next time you think about economic development or hear about it in your town, stop and think for a moment about the necessary, important and at times challenging planning and zoning work that underlies it all.

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