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The Devil is in the Details

Site plans and site walks are important things to planning and zoning commissions. Knowing the facts and the details of proposed land use activities, taking the proper time to review through it all, and asking questions and getting answers are good means for a planning and zoning commission to be able to make the best informed decisions possible. Once a decision is made, you cannot go back and have a “do over”. 

In this article, I will talk about site plans. In my next article, I will talk about site walks. 

A site plan is a detailed (or should be) set of maps, drawings, schematics, and other information that show the many aspects of a proposed land use activity as such pertain to a specific lot of land and the adjacent/neighboring area. In the case of a new residential development, a site plan is referred to as a subdivision review plan. For the purposes of this article, I will be discussing site plans as a general concept for both residential and non-residential developments. 

Site plans help one understand how a specific land use (such as a new commercial store, a neighborhood subdivision of homes, or a manufacturing facility) will fit onto a plot of land. They also help make clear what the use of the land could do with regards to any positive and negative impacts. Such benefits and detriments do not just pertain to where the land use activity will take place, but to the broader geographic area of the town. Site plans aid your town’s planning and zoning commission in determining that public safety, public health, environmental, and other concerns of your community are met. These are all major purposes of a planning and zoning commission – from personal experience serving on a planning and zoning commission, I can attest that such are always acknowledged and taken very seriously. Any negative impacts of a land use activity can be identified and addressed as best as possible. 

Informational items that a site plan may require include: 

  • Land use type and level of activity;
  • Population density on site;
  • building dimensions;
  • parking areas;
  • adjacent and neighboring properties;
  • boundary lines and property easements;
  • water bodies, wetlands, forested areas, and other natural resources;
  • driveways, entrances, exits, streets, sidewalks, and traffic patterns;
  • landscaping and buffering/screening;
  • erosion and sediment control;
  • storm water runoff management;
  • infrastructure placement (such as utilities, storage units and dumpsters);
  • lighting locations and types;
  • water service and sewage disposal; and
  • topography and geography of the land.

More information can be provided as it applies to the particular activity being proposed, the characteristics of the land itself, the requirements of a town’s zoning/subdivision regulations, and the requests of a planning and zoning commission. 

Site plan reviews require maps, drawings and schematics. This is important. You can read things on paper, but it is true that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. When a site plan review is done in conjunction with a site walk (usually needed, but may not be for a small, straightforward item), then the process provides itself with even more information, for it is also true that “seeing is believing”. Being able to see how a piece of land actually looks and how a proposed building or activity will literally fit onto it and within the surrounding geography is better than trying to visualize it from a 2-dimensional map/drawing or from only paragraphs of words. 

A site plan and its review are derived from, based upon and coordinated with a town’s zoning regulations. These things are not just made up, but have formality and structure to them. Applicants, members of the public, and the planning and zoning commission itself know ahead of time what is expected and have access to the information provided. When a planning and zoning commission considers changes to the regulations about site plans, everyone has the opportunity to provide input through public meetings. These are important concept to note. How a planning and zoning commission sets up site plans and the review process can affect how a community is or is not able to meet its municipal master planning goals. It is the zoning regulations, not the planning documents, which are the hands-on, enforceable mechanisms for managing various and varied land use activities. 

If the regulations about site plans were to be unfortunately non-existent, then the review processes will be unfocused, inconsistent, and ineffective. Land use will be haphazard and community protections via zoning regulations will be lost by too easily allowing potentially harmful or incongruous things to occur. Zoning regulations were created because of such occurrences and concerns. 

If the regulations about site plans were to be unnecessarily burdensome, then the review process may get lost in the minutiae of too many details and unable to understand how things fit into a community’s broad context. Land use becomes unfairly restrictive for individual property owners and a town may miss out on something beneficial and needed. Zoning regulations are made flexible and at times updated to minimize such occurrences. 

A site plan is a local planning and zoning tool. When properly used, it can guide, with common purpose and common sense, local population/residential growth, private commercial/manufacturing/industrial needs, public infrastructure and services, economic development, job growth, and tax base diversification. Thus, requiring appropriate, comprehensive site plans and taking due diligence to review the details of such site plans are indeed important responsibilities and common (and at times lengthy) work items of your town’s planning and zoning commission.

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