Zoning Practice — December 2007

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by Leslie Pollock and Arista Strungys, co-authors of the November 2007 Zoning Practice article "Why Do Site Plan Review?"

Question from Marilyn Vogel, Planning and Community Development Department, City of Bellingham, Washington:

Our community demands design review and wants better project design, but we also want an efficient and predictable review process.

1. Does design review take the place of site plan review? How could a staff-only site plan review process fit into a system that has a design review board without creating additional layers of process?

2. How and when should technical and environmental site plan review elements be coordinated with the design review process? Developers often want more site plan certainty before they go to architectural designs.

3. How does a site plan review process mesh with the building permit process and timing?

4. How much design detail is required for site plan review, and what additional detail level is required at the building permit level of site plan review?

5. For example, how final would the stormwater facilities be designed at the site plan review stage?

6. Is it common for site plan regulations to either allow departures from base zoning standards or to impose greater standards on a case-by-case basis?

Answer from authors Les Pollock and Arista Strungys:

1. The two processes can be left separate or combined as a single process. Design review and site plan review can be integrated into one step, though this depends upon review standards and review bodies. There must be standards in place that address the different aspects of site design (circulation, parking, landscaping, open space, etc.) and the specific standards of design review (facade articulation, scale, context, building materials). In addition, the review body must be comfortable with their responsibilities. Staff may be comfortable making site plan assessments but uncomfortable with architectural standards, which may need the expertise of an architect. For this reason, it may be appropriate to conduct an internal site plan review by staff and forward the comments to the Design Review Board to be integrated at the end of the process as one complete document.

2. Key environmental issues should be addressed at the outset of the process, in particular those elements that impact the site plan layout.

3. Site plan approval is typically a condition of granting a building permit. Once the site plan is approved, the applicant can apply for a building permit.

4. A site plan will look at the general conditions, including:

  • Surrounding zoning of the subject property and all surrounding properties
  • Public rights-of-way, easements, and utilities
  • Proposed building footprint and setbacks from property lines
  • Off-street parking spaces locations, dimensions, and number of spaces
  • Paved surfaces, materials, and location(s)
  • Landscape plan
  • Screening, fencing, site lighting (photometric grid), and signs
  • Architectural elevations drawn to scale

Site plan review is assessing the layout of the development and the impacts that result from such a configuration on the site. Building permits require construction documents to illustrate compliance with the building code, including "internal" elements. Electrical plans and the like are required at the building permit stage and generally require the expertise of the municipal engineer and building official.

5. Because the final architectural plans, engineering and building plans are submitted after site plan approval, a site plan review process should include an amendment procedure. This should allow for major and minor amendments, which approve deviation from the site plan on the basis of new conditions discovered upon breaking ground.

6. Site plan review does not allow from departures from zoning regulations — any deviation from zoning standards must come through the variance process or planned unit development (if the project is a PUD). However, as part of the process, the body conducting site plan review can negotiate with the developer to impose greater standards, such as a larger front yard or less impervious surface, so long as these further the goals of site plan review.

Question from Tom Davis:

I enjoyed your article "Why Do Site Plan Review?" I am new to the planning profession and am curious about a statement on page 6 of the article which says "Community planners do not have the time or authority to create those plans themselves." Can you elaborate on that comment? Part of my motivation for entering the profession was that I was hoping to actually design site plans some day based on my interest in urban design.

Answer from authors Les Pollock and Arista Strungys:

In terms of a community planner — i.e., someone who works for a municipality — there is less opportunity to create a site plan "from scratch." If the government owns the property and seeks to develop it, staff may play a role in site planning. More often, the other opportunity to do site planning may come from illustrative concepts for key areas — sub-area plans, specific plans, and design controls. But these would be conceptual in nature and intended to illustrate potential development rather than actual development.

However, as part of the site plan review process there are a number of ways in which community planners become involved in site planning. When a plan arrives from a private developer, often there will be changes that need to be made to meet development regulations, mitigate off-site impacts, and respond to established land use policies. Community planners may have to respond with illustrative examples of "good" site design to better communicate what the municipality wants.

Question from Aleshia Quick:

I have recently read the article regarding site plan review in the November 2007 Zoning Practice and I have a few questions.

1. Are you familiar with the retention schedule for site plans? I know each state has a different retention schedule, but I can't seem to find it within our schedule. How long are we to keep these plans?

2. Are you familiar with shared parking? We're going through changes with this issue, and I would like some experienced advice if you can share.

Answer from authors Les Pollock and Arista Strungys:

1. At minimum, the site plan should be retained through build-out in order to maintain a record of what was approved and to verify that is what has been built.

2. Shared parking offers many advantages in terms of site design flexibility. In essence there are two types of shared parking facilities — the first is a lot that provides the required number of space for each use. For example, if a restaurant requires 10 spaces and a dry cleaner requires 5 spaces, then the lot would consist of 15 spaces. The other type of shared parking facilities accommodates spaces for two uses which operate at different times. For example, if a retail use has hours during the day primarily it may share parking space with a restaurant that only conducts dinner service. The parking lot, in this case, should have the number of spaces that is required by the more intense user (i.e., the use that requires the largest number of spaces).

In such an arrangement, an agreement must be struck between the users and kept on file by the municipality. Also the municipality must verify that the two uses operate at generally different hours. There must also be provisions in place if one of the users shuts down and the next tenant does not keep the opposite hours, the ability to strike a new agreement between users, and a timeframe to provide some relief to create alternate parking arrangements or apply for a variance.

Question from Mark Ostgarden, AICP, City Planner, Brainerd, Minnesota:

Our community is about 13,800 people located in north central Minnesota, and we are rewriting our zoning ordinance and subdivision regulations. Site plan review involving the public, the planning commission, and city council has never been part of our approval process. Project approval has been by city staff. We do have uses that require a conditional use permit, so some uses do get additional review.

Our Planning Commission is recommending that site plan review be added to the new zoning ordinance, but the recommendation is being met with resistance by the city council. The concerns are that the process is not developer friendly because the additional level of review will take more time and impose additional site requirements that will cost more money. We have not seen a lot of new development, and some fear that site plan review will scare development away.

This issue will come to a head soon, and although the merits of site plan review have been explained to the city council, it is still reluctant to require it. What additional insights can you provide that I can use to justify why we should include this additional step in the approval process?

Answer from authors Les Pollock and Arista Strungys:

Including a site plan review may add time and cost to the process, but not an excessive amount if the process is structured properly. All site plan review processes should include an informal concept plan review with the staff or the plan commission or both. This should be a meeting between parties where an initial concept is presented and reviewed for compliance with ordinances and plans. This type of review often saves time and money because all parties know what to expect and what issues may arise.

In addition, the more the community has planned ahead, the more predictable the process becomes. If there are various plans in place (corridor plans, sub-area plans, comprehensive plans, etc.), then the developer knows what is anticipated for that particular area and should plan accordingly. Also, by including design standards within the zoning ordinance, the desired built form of new development is also made clear. The more documentation there is, the less gray the process and the quicker the review.

Question from Kirk Westphal, Planning Commissioner, Ann Arbor, Michigan:

In response to our city's proposed downtown design guideline initiative, a citizen recently stated that New York City used to have design guidelines but abandoned the practice because buildings ended up looking "too similar." Can you comment on this, or discuss any examples of design review processes that have not achieved the desired result (and speculate as to why)?

Answer from authors Les Pollock and Arista Strungys:

There are two issues at play in this question. The site plan review or design review process is essentially an administrative process that checks for compliance with the zoning ordinance and other land development regulation standards, as well as municipal land use policies and plans. What is central to the process, but not part of the administrative regulations, is what you are checking a site plan against.

If design guidelines are incorporated into the process, what is at issue is how specific the design standards are. This can be a double-edged sword. If the standards are very specific, then the developer knows exactly what is expected and can plan accordingly. But if the standards are too specific with limited alternatives, the outcome can begin to produce similar buildings. On the other hand, if the standards are left very open, then there can be confusion over what is expected and no cohesive look to the buildings. There are also concerns from designers that any design standards can inhibit creative design.

Many times design standards work best in areas where a character has been established over time and is intended to be preserved. Typically there is variation within that established character that can form a spectrum of alternatives and prevent cookie-cutter new development. The idea is to plan for and development design standards that reflect scale, context and tradition in those areas.

Question from Matt Morris, Transportation Planner, Seminole Nation of Oklahoma:

Do you have any checklists to use for site plan review?

Answer from authors Les Pollock and Arista Strungys:

Checklists for site plan review vary based upon the standards included within the process. Typically, you would see a checklist for the final site plan that would include the list below. If a preliminary or concept plan is included as part of the site plan review process, whether required or optional, there would be a simplified version of this checklist which includes enough information to discuss the project but does not require final drawings, engineering, and the like.

  • A completed application form is required for all submissions. A completed application form shall be accompanied by a legal description of the property, as it appears on the deed, and a full and complete disclosure of direct or indirect ownership. In the case of a land trust, all beneficiaries shall be disclosed. In addition, a current title and affidavit of ownership is required. If the owner's signature is not on the application, a letter stating the owner's consent for the filing of the application is also required.
  • A current site survey no more than one (1) year old.
    1. A Site Plan drawn to scale, which shall indicate, at a minimum:
    2. Property lines
    3. Acreage and proposed density
    4. Zoning of the subject property and all surrounding properties
    5. Public rights-of-way, easements, and utilities
    6. Proposed and existing building footprints on the subject property and all surrounding properties, including dimensioned setbacks from property lines
    7. Parking spaces locations, dimensions, and number of spaces
    8. Paved surfaces, materials, and location(s)
    9. Landscape plan indicating existing and proposed landscape materials and associated proposed plant materials list
    10. Details for screening, fencing, site lighting, and signs. Where site lighting is proposed, a photometric grid that indicates light intensity in footcandles across the site and at all property lines shall also be required.
  • Architectural elevations drawn to scale and indicating building height.
  • For new construction, a fiscal impact analysis that addresses the potential impact of the proposed development on taxes, schools, fire, police, infrastructure and other municipal services shall be required unless waived by the municipality.
  • Cover letter listing all items submitted with table of contents. All submittals shall be page-numbered and dated.
  • Any other supporting documents to indicate intentions and/or any other items required by the municipality.