Reviewing Zoning & Plat Applications

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Reviewing plat and zoning-related applications are often the toughest part of the development process. Often this is where projects get snagged in a confusing and slow process that brings out frustration in many developers. This is especially true for locals who have never witnessed such a process.

The best way to ward off these issues and improve the process is through organization and clarification. Although developers will never be “happy” to go through your approval processes, it is clear, organized, and logical, the number of complaints will drop significantly. The developers are more likely to respect the process and make adjustments set forth in your regulations if a professional looking process is maintained.

Using a Team for Reviewing Applications

Plan Review

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The first part to a professional process is the team that is compiled to review applications. A city clerk or city manager alone is not the ideal reviewer for most applications. Having a team from the different departments of your community provides insights from different viewpoints. It also provides clout to your reviews. Concerns over a project’s impact on an undersized water line gets more respect if the public works director and/or the town’s engineering consultant is on the team. Similarly concerns about traffic carry more clout if they are from a member of the police department.

The overall group doesn’t need to be that big, but it should be knowledgeable. They should also know their role in the review and what they are looking for. A rambling discussion about whether the use itself meets the regulations from your public works director is not helpful to the process and wastes time in a process you are trying to streamline.

Importance of a Pre-Application Meeting

Not all planning and zoning actions will require a pre-application meeting. However, you’ll find that these meetings are often invaluable in the process. Meeting with the developer and their architectural/engineering consultant before the submittal of the application can have a great impact on the process. The applicant can get a clearer understanding of the process and what is expected of them. The consultant is also able to hear and immediately noticeable and glaring changes that need to be made to the documentation. Overall, the entire process takes a large step forward with better clarity and understanding of the intent of both sides.

Responding to the Applicant

It is important to set a deadline for comments. A structured timeline sets expectations and ensures the process doesn’t drag out. Also, the responses should be written, not verbal. It is easier to compile a clear review letter from all the responses if you have their responses word-for-word. Often a report written from a verbal response comes out wrong and a missed word or overall memory from a conversation doesn’t get relayed correctly. This can have dire consequences on the entire process.

It is also important to compile a single report from all your responses. When you are handling review letters from multiple sources you’ll likely have responses that overlap and conflict. Beyond the overlapping statements, there’s often a variety of writing styles. Simply forwarding a stack of responses from multiple sources can be quite confusing and frustrating to a developer.

The final review letter should be clear and concise. It should provide a clear direction in what changes need to be made before an application can be approved. The letter should also give a clear deadline to get the changes in. If your planning commission, city council, or village board have set dates, deadlines need to be held for sufficient time to meet state statute requirements for public hearing notices.

Wash, Rinse, Dry, Repeat

Once the applicant resubmits revised documents the process starts over again. Route copies of the revised documents around to the same review group as before. Gather their blessing or additional critique. Then write another letter that consolidates the comments.

Once the application is ready for review by the recommending or approving boards, walk them through the process. The applicant should be informed of meeting dates and times. They should be told of expectations, such as the need to provide a presentation. It is also best to anticipate questions the board, commission, or council may have. If the applicant is prepared to answer the questions, they look more competent. In turn your vetting of the applicant looks more complete, leading to more credibility.

In Summary

Overall, having a professional, organized, ritualistic process for reviewing zoning applications has multiple advantages. Developers are more likely to grasp the process and accept changes requested. Fellow staff members appreciate their role and become more involved in the process. The councils/village boards that you serve are more likely to respect your work as well.