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Land Use Planning Tips for Cities and Towns

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Land use planning allows your community to choose the right amount of land in a variety of locations for the real estate development, economic growth, and open space that you predict you will need in the future.

Commonly communities undertake this venture as a major part of a comprehensive plan, master plan, or general plan. In most states, this type of planning is a legal and logical requirement prior to zoning.

Typically state laws assign this duty to a planning commission, sometimes called a planning and zoning commission. Usually they delegate the actual research and writing to a consultant or staff, but in some cases, especially in smaller towns, you'll find the commission itself burning the midnight oil toiling away on a map.

By the way, in many minds, the land use plan is a synonym for the preferred future land use map. The concept of preparing a policy plan containing a series of "if-then" statements detailing the rationale behind assignments of future land use is much more legally defensible.

Probably in the long run it is more politically defensible as well. And it gives future decision making bodies some ammunition if they want to act contrary to public opinion in denying or affirming a particular land development proposal.

This document does not have to be the length of a Ph.D. dissertation; a few pages may record the end result of your thought process. In fact, it's important that the plan itself be as transparent as possible; the whole point is a level playing field for all community stakeholders.

Whether you're undertaking land use planning for the first time or updating an old one, land use planning principles are similar. (If you need a review, or just want to get everyone on the same page, visit that part of our site for a good list.)

In a comprehensive plan update process, consider the evolution of ideas and techniques since your last plan was formulated, including possibly new land use classifications.

Look for opportunities to specify that mixed-use development, for example, could be appropriate in particular locations.

Bear in mind that you need not work out the details of what the mix of uses would be or how they would be regulated; you would be merely identifying potential locations.

However, I suspect that in many communities, you'll have to spell out exactly what mix you have in mind and where, if you propose to introduce the mixing of land uses where most parcels have been developed.

A second general caution for future land use planning involves managing the community's expectations. Try to make clear in every venue and on every occasion that you can that the future land use plan will not specify all of the detailed requirements or qualifications that might be placed on a future land development. You are simply drawing up a general scheme of things.

So a good land use planning activity involves community engagement in a discussion of land use policy. Then an inventory of existing land uses should be prepared, and if you are a free-standing community, a projection of population for some future interval or intervals should be made using professionally acceptable methods.

In suburbs or in land-locked central cities, you have only so much undeveloped land to deal with, and your policy questions will revolve around whether you want to increase your population, and if so, where.

If you're in an inner city with too many abandoned buildings, then you may decide you want to be as flexible as possible in the future land use planning.

That policy wish can be advanced in a wise planning method by designating a fair amount of your desired infill as mixed-use development.

Alternatively, you may specify options that will be acceptable as long as an entire block face is developed the same way. For example, a particular block could be all residential or all neighborhood commercial. If your explanatory text is persuasive, this should stand up to scrutiny.

The Traditional Land Use Planning Method for Small, Stand-Alone Cities and Towns

Traditionally, the amount of land you need for each land use category was determined by making a projection about your future population, determining the amount of land used for each category currently, and then projecting future land use needs.

This only works if you think your economy will stay about the same in composition, and you have agricultural land that is free to be developed surrounding your borders if you think your population will grow. But that applies to some of you, so here it is.

Population projections actually can be done by amateurs nearly as well as professionals. It even can be explained in one paragraph. Look at the population trend for perhaps the last 50 years, at 10-year intervals or whatever you have. If you have annual estimates, also look in detail at what has been happening in the last 10 to 20 years.

You can use your algebra (O.K., your computer) to make a straight line projection of what will happen in the next 20 years, or whatever your planning interval might be, based on the past 20 years, or a different interval if you have reason to think that 20 years would misrepresent the trend. Then adjust the results up or down based on known future developments, such as the withdrawal of a major employer.

Determine the current acreage or square miles used for each type of land use you're studying. Then divide by the current population to determine the acreage needed per person for each type of land use. Lastly, multiply this decimal by your population projection.

Then adjust again for likely or known future events. Is a major plant leaving town? Then it's silly to project a need for additional industrial land; you will have a surplus.

Is your economy rapidly changing because the state gave you the intersection of two major highways, so now you're a warehouse center? Well, maybe you need less land for factories and more land parcels near the transportation hub for a warehouse district.

Important Concepts about Town Planning

Understanding the general methodology of planning would be useful, and you can learn about that on our neighborhood plans page.

It's also helpful to understand something about population characteristics, which are briefed at the neighborhood demographics page.

It's also critical to develop a common vocabulary for talking about the small town character if you're a place of under about 5,000 people.

What is unique in your town, what themes need to be carried out, and do you need what type of land use regulation, if any, would bring about that character? Or could you use a newer form-based code approach? Or architectural review only of non-residential buildings?

Tips on How to Do the Plan

Yes, you can do it yourself, but no, you really shouldn't, if you can afford staff or city planning consultants.

If you can't afford either, maybe you can find an urban or regional planning graduate student for a summer internship. Or maybe a law student who's interested in land use planning.

If you're close to a metropolitan area but your local or county government doesn't have much map-making capability, there may be a soil and water conservation district, extension office, resource and conservation district, university, or other resource to help you with mapping.

Most map-making occurs now by computer, using what is called GIS (geographic information systems). The GIS system not only makes maps, it makes layers on the maps, which can be shown or not shown when you print out a particular map. It also attaches the points on the map to a database, which can be quite elaborate and contain property ownership information.

The computerized nature of a GIS system will come in handy during future land use planning because it enables you to try out many more options than just a generation ago when maps had to be made by hand.

If you hire a land use planning consultant, be very careful about accepting what is recommended without asking enough questions.

It's your complete right to understand what steps were taken, who was interviewed, what data were collected, how data were analyzed, what assumptions were made, and generally why each land use designation that would change future land use was selected.

It's the job of consultants to help their firm make money, and if you think they're doing your land use plan because they love you so much, think again.

At some point if you ask too many questions, change your mind too many times, and want too much information collected and analyzed, they're going to back off and not perform. So it's important to give considerable attention to what they propose as their Scope of Services. Then be a good client and don't make them attend more meetings than they are contracted to attend, and so forth. Think before you sign.

Related Help:

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Land Use Classifications

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Land Use Planning Principles

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Incentive Zoning

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Watershed Planning

Beyond Land Use Planning to Neighborhood Character Planning

In a community that is mostly fully built, your future land use planning can concentrate on laying out a few infill principles that would be applicable to your few vacant tracts. If you have just one or two vacant tracts of any size, give those considerable deliberation, as they could influence the neighborhood character in their area for the better or worse.

Even in communities that have a considerable amount of land available for development, you may want to say in your land use plan or plan update that you should consider a form-based code, also discussed on our zoning regulations principles page. This newer type of code can be applied on a community-wide scale, or more likely, in particular parts of your city or town.

Especially if the value of land is high in your community, and every development requires discretionary reviews, you may want to put most of your emphasis on thinking and writing into neighborhood character or small town character goals rather than traditional land use goals.

New Ideals in Land Use Planning: From Segregation to Mixed-Use and Transit-Oriented

Older materials on land use planning emphasize segregation of land uses, and many active citizens still think that is the principle. Some of your planning commissioners and elected officials may think so too. And separations of land uses do have their place.

However, a newer emphasis is on the performance of any particular type of land use, and retail commercial establishments under a specified square footage can be easily incorporated into keeping the spirit of a residential neighborhood. 

Keep the neighborhood retail at the end of a block or end of a vista. The same principle applies to smaller governmental and institutional uses.

Be sure to accommodate also the fact that mixed-use development may be vertical, i.e., within the same building. On the land use planning level, simply mark certain tracts as appropriate for mixed-use, but generally don't set it up so that is the only future land use permitted unless you're really sure this is the public policy you want to promote.

Particularly next to the transit station, make sure that your future land use category is extremely versatile.

Making Density and Intensity Acceptable

If I knew the answer as to how to make people accept more density near their homes, I'd be wealthy. Recently we added a page though on a rather new movement called YIMBY (Yes, in My Back Yard) that aims to actually promote density, so there is a tiny bit of motion in that direction.

But I do know that as difficult as it is politically, you need to think about the density you need to make your transportation system efficient, to make walkable communities, to make expensive land yield enough profit that the development community will pay attention to you, and to avoid development in environmentally sensitive lands that might be adjacent to or within your boundaries.

Stop and do the extensive public education that it will require to make the reasons behind your wish for density acceptable. Bring in experts (or their books or website) to explain the benefits of compactness to your community and the metro area, if any.

Address directly the fear of property value loss. Calculate and explain in detail the fiscal benefits of density. If necessary, hire an architect to produce really great-looking renderings of the aesthetic possibilities under the density under consideration.

Sometimes elected officials fear that calling for a higher density will drive the development community away. If so, educate them about the mood of land developers today. Point out the publications and conversation at the Urban Land Institute, which is basically an organization of developers serving developers.

But do be courageous about planning the future of your community.

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