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MML#3 – Officials Learn the Basics of Planning and Zoning

MML#3 – Officials Learn the Basics of Planning and Zoning

(Crystal A. Proxmire, March 16, 2018)

Frankenmuth, MI- Planning and zoning are essential components of local governance that are often not well-known by residents and require some learning by newly elected officials. The Michigan Municipal League recently did a weekend training session for officials, and invited John Enos of Carlisle Wortman to teach some of the basics.

“These are big decisions,” Enos said. “These [developments] will be around longer than you will.”

Zoning ordinances dictate what types of buildings and businesses can go where in a community. And planning helps ensure that a community grows with the right kind of balance.  Some cities and villages do this well, and others do not.

The Master Plan is “the only officially adopted document that sets forth an agenda for the achievement of land use goals and policies,” Enos said.  It outlines goals and plans, synchronizes public improvements and private development, serves as an educational tool and gives a clear indication of the direction for the future.  It also provides the statutory foundation upon which zoning decisions are made.

The Master Plan must be updated every five years.  If it is not, it could nullify zoning decisions.  The legal aspects of planning and zoning are crucial, as is the need for the public to be informed and involved in the process.

“If a project meets zoning and you deny it, you could be sued,” Enos said.  “You can’t just say, I don’t like the guy, or the public doesn’t want this.”  The Master Plan with the correct zoning does provide the framework for desirable development.

“The Master Plan is policy,” he said. It protects property values, protects natural resources, prevents nuisances, ensures land use compatibility and future use compatibility.”

“If you’re not proud of developments happening in your town, it’s your zoning ordinance’s fault,” Enos said.  He said that municipalities can require aesthetic features such as landscaping requirements, bike racks, decorative lighting, low level lighting, specific kinds of signage etc.

National chains are known for developments that are as cheap and easy to erect as possible, but good ordinances can compel them to fit into the desired feel of an area. But, it has to be in the ordinance.  “You can tell them you want landscaping, and they will ask ‘where in the ordinance is it?”

A site plan is a document that gives essential elements of a development.  It’s not just about the building and the parking.  Other considerations include drainage, natural areas, buffering, emergency access, services and utilities and access for vehicles and pedestrians.  Enos stressed that all departments should be involved in reviewing a site plan.

Some common mistakes are made though, such as placing water or utility lines underneath trees instead of concrete.  It is easier to dig up and replace concrete than to loose established trees to repairs down the line.

Another common mistake is not taking aesthetic value into consideration. “Sometimes police want lights brighter than the sun and no landscaping because they’re afraid a bad guy could hide,” he said. “But that’s just a perception and it’s not necessary,” he said.  “Find the balance between safety and community feel.”

For some construction, rezoning or a zoning variance may be needed.  For example in a residential neighborhood a homeowner may request a variance if they want to build a garage that is too close to a lot line due to having an odd shaped property, or some other unusual circumstance. Also, if a community sees a lot of requests for the same type of zoning variance, such as people wanting larger garages, then it may make sense to revisit the ordinance to see if an update is needed to fit the community’s needs.

Another tool is a Special Land Use Permit. This requires additional approval for certain kinds of business such as those with a drive through, medical marijuana related businesses, and power plants.  Enos cautioned that criteria for special land use permits must be clearly spelled out.  A site plan does not require a public hearing, but a special land use permit does.

PUDs are another form of development that comes up in municipalities.  Planned Urban Developments are larger properties or sets of properties being developed into multiple dwellings or mixed use communities.  Cities and Villages can require PUDs to have certain features outlined in the Master Plan such as landscaping, parking, lighting, security features, aesthetics etc.

Most municipalities have a Planning Commission that hears proposals, works with applicants to make changes, and will either approve the plan or make a recommendation for the Council or Commission to approve or deny the plan.

Enos said that ideally the Planning Commission is made up of people with expertise in real estate, construction, planning etc.  Planning Commission meetings are public, as they are with any public body.  Agendas for Planning Commission meetings should be on city websites and made available to those who request them.  Public Hearings require additionally notice, and are done when a plan requires a variance.

Enos said that reviewing the Master Plan is a good time to get the public involved and educated about planning. Often communities will do surveys and have public input sessions during the Master Plan process.  Referring to the Master Plan when discussing development can also help residents understand how decisions are made.

“People may buy a house across from a beautiful wooded area to be surprised that it’s planned to be industrial and the bulldozers show up,” he said.  The Master Plan is the best resource to share with residents when questions of development arise. He also recommended that the planning process be clear.  “Residents want to know they are being heard. They want to know that there is a process, and that the process is being followed, that you’re not just making decisions in a smoky back room,” Enos said.

This article is the third in a series of articles about the MML weekend training in Feb. 2018.  If you aren’t already on our list for Daily Headlines, please sign up HERE so you won’t miss any of this exciting and informative series! Find other MML related articles HERE.

For more on Michigan Municipal League, check out their website at

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