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Multitasking. That is what is required when deciding upon land use applications, writing zoning/subdivision regulations and updating municipal planning documents. There are many things of varying types to review at the same time. Looking at an item individually may be easy to do, but it does not always show what’s around you because each item does not exist by itself – it exists simultaneously with many other items. Some of these things are easy to recognize as being directly connected with each other whereas others are interconnected but not apparent at first look. Adding to the complexity is the fact that things in life can and often do change. Thus, there are different factors to consider at any one time and over time. That’s a lot of things! 

Knowing about all of these co-existing or co-occurring items is important. The more items there are to review the more challenging it is to understand them all and to make good public policy decisions. All the more so when there may be legal/statutory decision deadlines to meet (otherwise, there are situations when the lack of a decision by default becomes an acceptance of a land use application). 

One way your town’s planning and zoning commission tackles this common challenge is to look at sets of maps that show different items of interest about your community. If you want to see where something is located in or throughout your town, then you look at maps. This can be more helpful than trying to visualize something by reading about it in a written report. Given the proper information and its location on the ground (and enough staff time and money in a budget to make the maps accurate, detailed, and updated), your entire town or your neighborhood can be mapped out for a particular item, using different scales of reference size. 

Before a map or sets of maps can be created, the first thing to do is to develop inventories of co-occurring resources and things that exist in your town. These can be geographical and topographical features; forests, open spaces, conservation areas, wetlands, watercourses, wildlife habitats, natural resources, and soil types; drinking water aquifers; zoning districts; existing buildings and other structures; streets, roads, pedestrian/bicycle ways, and traffic patterns; public infrastructure; historical and cultural landmarks; recreational areas; and population densities. 

Another inventory resource important to consider is the land that is currently undeveloped but is buildable. This represents the “buildout” areas of your town that could become developed in the future as your town grows. 

All of these maps not only help planning and zoning commissioners think about what is going on with your community in the here and now, but what could take place over time. It also can help planning and zoning commissions learn from the past in order to see what has worked (so as not “to reinvent the wheel” regarding good things) and what has not worked (so as not “relive the past” regarding bad things). 

When creating maps of co-occurring things, caution needs to be taken not to overload a map with too many things. If that were to happen, then a map becomes difficult to read and to use. However, if one had the ability to overlay individual maps onto each other in different combinations by selecting the information that one wants to look at, then seeing co-existing things in relation to each other would become easier. In hard copy form, maps printed on clear sheets can be placed on top of each other so that each map’s data can be seen. In electronic form, computers can be used to overlay onto each other sets of geographic information system (GIS) databases of information. Click on what you want to see and click off what you don’t want to see. 

Why do all of this? Good municipal planning begets good municipal zoning. Knowing about the things present in your town helps make good public policy decisions about where to permit or prohibit land use activities or construction of buildings, where to direct preservation/conservation efforts, and what to think about regarding the evolving needs of your town. It allows planning and zoning commissions to ask questions and to get answers. By being able to obtain data about the currently existing things in your town and thinking proactively about what those things may be in the future, your town’s planning and zoning commission can help guide the inevitable growth and development of your community. 

A few caveats are in order. There are some things that cannot be drawn on maps -written reports, diagrams and pictures still have a role. Also, we all know that information is only as good as the data initially obtained, what is put into a database, and how it is presented to us. Nevertheless, having information that is needed, and using means to see it all in a way that is understandable, I find in my own work as a planning and zoning commissioner to be very helpful in making decisions about land use activities. 

So, the next time you see your town’s planning and zoning commission reviewing reports and maps, you will know that it has a lot of helpful information it needs to make decisions about complex and challenging things about your town. You will also better understand why the commission may be asking lots of questions, taking lots of notes and not rushing to make a decision. There is a method to the “madness”.

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