Why Appropriate Land Use Planning Matters

Land is a finite resource. Planning for its use may determine the future of a community, and will likely be the difference between smart growth and haphazard or no growth. Understanding the concepts, terminology and process used in setting land use policy is the key to successful zoning decisions.

What is a comprehensive plan?

A comprehensive plan is a document containing the general principles and goals intended to guide land use decisions. Virginia law requires local governments to update their comprehensive plans every five years. A municipality will often invite its citizens to participate in this process. The result should be a comprehensive plan that encompasses the collective vision of a community as to how land should be used.

How does zoning relate to a comprehensive plan?

Zoning ordinances specify which uses are authorized in each zoning district and contain the procedures that must be satisfied in order to change the use of a parcel of land.  Local governments should revise their zoning ordinances following any update of a comprehensive plan to ensure consistency and to implement the objectives of the plan.

What is a “permitted” use?

A permitted use is one that is allowed by right in a zoning district without any further approval by a municipality. Land may not be put to a use not permitted by right unless it is approved for a “special” use or is rezoned.

What is a “special” use?

Zoning ordinances generally contain a separate category of uses in each zoning district that may be allowed only if a municipality issues a “special use permit” or approves a “special exception.” These terms may be used interchangeably.

Who makes these decisions?

Zoning decisions are made by the governing body of a municipality – City Council, Town Council or a Board of Supervisors for a County. Zoning applications are first reviewed by planning staff and considered at a public hearing by a Planning Commission appointed by the governing body to make recommendations. The governing body, after a separate public hearing, makes the decision to approve or deny the request. Any appeal of the decision is made to the Circuit Court of that jurisdiction.

What is a “variance”?

A variance is a request for a waiver or modification of a requirement that must be satisfied in order to obtain approval for a particular use. Requests for variances often relate to a technical requirement, such as a setback from adjacent property. Under Virginia law, variances may be granted only in very limited circumstances. The basis for any variance must relate to a particular circumstance unique to a specific parcel, such as its size, shape or other peculiar circumstance. The failure to grant a variance must also be shown to cause an “undue hardship”. These decisions are generally made by a Board of Zoning Appeals, which is a special body authorized by state law and typically appointed by the Circuit Court of a locality for this purpose.

What are “development standards”?

These are technical requirements that must be satisfied in order to obtain a building permit once a zoning request is approved. A site plan for development for the project must be submitted demonstrating compliance with the applicable development standards. Understanding how these standards apply to a particular project is often times more important than the rezoning itself. Requesting advice from an experienced lawyer or engineer may be a prudent investment in order to avoid unforeseen and expensive pitfalls that impede the success of the project.

It is true that there isn’t any more land being made. But through proper planning and reasonable and consistent land use decisions, we should be able to make the most of what there is.

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These articles are provided for general informational purposes only and are marketing publications of Gentry Locke. They do not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. You are urged to consult your own lawyer concerning your situation and specific legal questions you may have.