Zoning Practice — December 2004

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by Stuart Meck, FAICP, and Marya Morris, AICP, authors of the November 2004 Zoning Practice article "Formatting and Writing the Staff Report."

Question from Scott Headlee, Planner I, Warren County Regional Planning Commission, Lebanon, Ohio:

Can you give me some general guidelines for improving staff reports? I've enclosed two as examples.

Answer from author Stuart Meck:

You have forwarded two staff reports. One is for a 47-acre preliminary plat with 99 building lots, and two open space lots. The other is for a site plan for 8,107.13-square-foot addition on an existing 9.204-acre site for a welding and fabricating facility.

Both of these reports raise issues that are common to other staff reports that Marya Morris and I discovered in researching our article on writing and formatting staff reports for Zoning Practice. These issues relate to accounting for the views of other agencies, and dealing with fixed requirements of the regulations under which the review occurs.

1. In the preliminary plan report, the attachments indicate that the township zoning officer, an external reviewer, has found that the subdivision complies with zoning requirements. But the report conditions the approval on "[C]ompliance with the ... Township Zoning Code." If it complies, that is, all of the lots meet the dimension standards of the zoning code, why impose the condition?

In any case, it is good to independently check whether proposed platted lots do satisfy local zoning requirements to prevent the recording of a lot that does not. I recommend having the applicant indicate the acreage or square feet of each lot on the preliminary plan and plat. The calculations should be done by an engineer or a surveyor. This resolves, objectively, questions about whether the minimum area standards (as well as any other relevant dimensional standards such as lot width and depth) are satisfied.

The staff report states the local fire department recommends that parking in the subdivision be limited to the nonhydrant side of the street. But the staff report does not address what to do with this recommendation. Is it necessary to ban parking on the full distance of the side of the street that has a hydrant, or could an alternative be to limit parking within a certain specified distance of the hydrants through a curb marking or signs — probably something that could be a standard condition in the subdivision regulations? Of course, simply because another agency recommends something doesn't mean that the recommendation must be incorporated into the staff report as a condition. You must use your professional judgment to make the determination of what recommendations to make.

In addition, there are many conditions in the staff report that remind the developer to obtain approval of the county engineer. Two examples: The staff report reminds the applicant that sidewalks are required on both sides of all streets and that there must be a stormwater drainage plan, per Section 421 (Stormwater Management) of the Warren County Subdivision Regulations and compliance with the Rules and Regulations for the Design of Storm Sewer and Stormwater Management Systems.

It shouldn't be necessary to impose lists of conditions as "reminders," when these conditions will have to be satisfied whether or not they are cited in the staff report. Here you recommend "tentative approval" with a list of 18 conditions. When you meet with the applicant at the pre-application conference, which is part of most subdivision reviews, provide the applicant with a written statement of all platting requirements. Indicate as part of the staff report that the applicant has been provided with a list of those requirements. If certain subdivision requirements for the preliminary plan have not been satisfied at the time of review, then indicate which requirements those are, and recommend that the subdivision be tabled, until the plan is amended to show those requirements. If the pre-application process is working, then the applicant should understand that the preliminary plan must account for all of the requirements in the subdivision regulations.

2. In the case of the site plan review, it was not clear to me what the actual decision was to be, who was to make it (and to whom the recommendation was being directed), and what criteria had to be satisfied? The criteria — as stated in the ordinance — should be listed in the staff report. You should organize your comments according to the criteria contained in the site plan review regulations. Our Zoning Practice article suggests a format for doing it.

The site plan review staff report notes that the applicant is to submit details on grading, drainage, and erosion control, but hasn't. The report states:

No details regarding lighting or signage were provided, and must be provided for approval if any such additional items are proposed. The site plan references an electrical lighting plan as part of the complete set of drawings prepared for the immediate and future proposed building additions. It is recommended that all lighting, be it wall-mounted or free-standing, should be shielded downward and kept to minimal intensity, so not to be a glare nuisance as viewed from any surrounding property, particularly by the north abutting residence. Any directional signage, as considered all that may be necessary, should also be minimal as to size and number.

Do your site plan review standards require such details, and does your sign code specify the maximum number of signs on each site, and do lighting standards call for cut-off luminaires that prevent glare on off-site properties?

Again, if the mechanical submission requirements of the ordinance have not been met, then you should not be reviewing the application and sending your recommendations to the decision maker, be it the planning commission or county board. That may sound harsh, but the design professionals who are submitting this material should identify the requirements in advance, before submission, and comply with them. You shouldn't be accepting incomplete applications.