Permits are authorizations you get to do certain things. If you build a house, then you get many different types of permits, such as building and zoning permits. The many people who build your house get permits in the form of licenses to allow them to do what they do as professionals. Even the contractor and realtor need business permits from the state to run their businesses. Permits are used to provide a level of protection that the people doing the work and the work itself meet regulations and codes designed to protect safety and health (among other things).
A planning and zoning commission uses land use permits to make decisions based upon zoning and subdivision regulations. These permit applications are reviewed following a defined process based upon the regulations and state statutes.
There are different types of land use permits, each with their own set of regulations. Two types commonly used are zoning permits and special permits.
A zoning permit is a basic type of permit for a land use viewed as straightforward and determined ahead of time as compatible with other land uses in specific zoning districts. Such uses can be individual houses in a residential zone, new decks or sheds, uncomplicated home occupations, or small stores in a commercial district. A planning and zoning commission may not need to review these applications if they comply with the regulations. Your town’s Zoning Enforcement Officer would review the applications and approve (or deny) them based upon the regulations. Sometimes, however, a planning and zoning commission may want a degree of hands-on oversight regarding some zoning permits (such as for certain types of businesses, student housing, or activities not easily placed in a pre-defined category), so such applications would come before the commission for its review and decision.
A special permit is more involved, allowing for an extra review of a proposed, but permitted, land use activity, in order to assess its compatibility with other allowed activities in the same zoning district. This is an important aspect of special permits. It requires an in-depth review of a land use and a detailed list of criteria upon which to make a decision to approve it. Examples are shopping centers, industrial buildings, or large activities.
A permit is granted only to an activity that is already allowed by the regulations in a specific zoning district. Before seeking permission to do such an activity, someone must read the regulations’ details to know ahead of time what is permitted or prohibited, the application information needed, and the process that will be followed.
A formal public hearing is held on a special permit so that the community, including those who live near the land to be developed, can have an opportunity to know what is going on, to ask questions, and to provide input. For zoning permits, a public hearing is not held, but since a planning and zoning commission conducts its work at a public meeting, public input can still be received. Depending upon the complexity of the proposed activity, outside expert review may be needed, such as by engineering, fire safety, public health, legal, or other professionals. This is commonly done.
A planning and zoning commission can deny an application if the proposed land use is not allowed by the regulations, if it is incompatible with what else is in the same zoning district, or if the application or information provided is incomplete. The application may be approved as presented without changes or approve it with conditions attached. There could be various conditions so applied, such as those that pertain to hours of operation; lighting and noise; parking and on-site traffic; size and height of buildings; monitoring of construction; protection of nearby land, habitats, and drinking water sources; distance from nearby houses; landscape buffering; public safety protections, etc…
The ability for a planning and zoning commission to apply conditions of approval upon an application is important. It is how extra protections are provided to your community while allowing a landowner or business to do what they are asking to do. Because land use applications are not “cookie cutter” copies of each other, and because different parcels of land and areas of your town have differing, sometimes unique, characteristics, being able to adapt to such circumstances while still adhering to the regulations is necessary.
Any time a condition of approval is placed on a land use application, it needs to be based on what is allowed by the regulations and with a legal authority to do so. The conditions need to be reasonable and not burdensome.
The permit review and decision process is not open ended. State statutes specifically provide strict time limits by which a decision needs to be reached; otherwise, if no decision is made by the deadline, then the application is approved by default.
If the regulations about permits are non-existent or substandard, then the review and decision process will be unfocused, inconsistent, and ineffective. Unwanted haphazard municipal growth and development may occur. If the regulations were to be unnecessarily burdensome or too strict, then the review and decision process will get lost in the minutiae of too many details, being unable to understand how things fit into a community’s broad context and thus causing a town to miss out on something beneficial or needed. Additionally, land use becomes unfairly restrictive for individual property owners.
Permits in their various forms allow a community to guide its growth and development. The devil is in the details, but well thought out regulations on zoning and special permits are important ways your town’s planning and zoning commission receives, reviews and decides upon a wide array of land uses and applications.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Gordon is Chairman of Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission. This article neither reflects any official statement of nor any specific work being done by the Commission. Check out www.JeffreyGordon.com.