Land use planning is one of the most important, complex and controversial policy issues municipal councils have to tackle.
Knowing how the planning and land use process works and the roles and responsibilities of the various players is important for elected municipal officials if they are to be effective leaders. This understanding can help council avoid exceeding its authority or creating potential conflicts with the other participants. State law has intentionally decentralized the powers of the various players to provide a system of checks and balances.
There are four main groups involved in the process: municipal council, municipal planning commission, planning staff and board of zoning appeals. According to Title 6, Chapter 29 of state law, each has narrowly defined roles and responsibilities.
Council’s role is limited to appropriating funding for the planning function, appointing planning commission and board of zoning appeals members, and adopting applicable land use policies and regulations. Only the municipal council can approve and enact policies and laws which govern development activities.
Council cannot become involved in interpreting or enforcing the policies and laws it enacts. It has no authority to grant variances or exceptions. If council does not like how one of its policies or laws is applied, its only recourse is to modify the policy or law for future application.
Council can have limited, indirect influence on the development, interpretation and enforcement of the regulations through its appointment of professional staff, board of zoning appeals members and planning commission members. State law authorizes municipal councils to establish and appoint members to the municipal planning commission, board of zoning appeals and architectural review board.
The planning commission prepares a comprehensive plan for council’s consideration. The plan examines existing conditions and forecasts growth within ten functional areas (or elements) as established by state law. Once council adopts or amends the
comprehensive plan, the planning commission recommends policies, procedures and tools, such as zoning, historic preservation standards, subdivision regulations and capital improvement plans, to guide the municipality’s orderly physical, social and economic growth in a manner consistent with the blueprint detailed in the comprehensive plan.
All planning commission recommendations are advisory in nature. Council can accept, reject or modify the recommendations. Essentially, the planning commission functions as the research arm and principal policy advisor to council.
On a daily basis, the planning staff interprets, applies and administers planning and land use policies and laws adopted by council. Additionally, staff often provides research and support services for the city council, planning commission and board of zoning appeals.
Appointed by council, independent boards decide all requests for appeals of staff’s administrative decisions and grants or denies applications for variances or special exceptions. The boards function in a judicial role.
All appeals of zoning code issues go to the board of zoning appeals. If council opts to establish an architectural review board, that board reviews and decides administrative appeals and interpretations of applicable aesthetic or historic district regulations.
Council cannot review or otherwise become involved with decisions of the independent boards it appoints. Appeals of all decisions go directly to a state circuit court for review.