Difference between a zoning ordinance and a master plan

The zoning ordinance is a law with penalties and consequence for not following it. A master plan is a policy document that expresses intent. It is not an enforceable document and is not law.

Source: Figure by the Land Policy Institute, Michigan State University 2015.
Source: Figure by the Land Policy Institute, Michigan State University 2015.

A zoning ordinance and a master plan are not the same thing. A master plan is not enforceable, and attempting to do so can get a community in trouble. 

Once I was asked to provide education to a community that was trying to turn down a site plan review, because it did not comply with the community’s master plan. The community even had a site plan review standard in its zoning ordinance that read “the application request satisfies the goals and objectives of the … [town name] master plan.” 

In Michigan, a master plan can be adopted by the municipality’s planning commission – an appointed administrative body. A planning commission has no authority to adopt an ordinance or any other document that could be enforced with penalties. The planning commission can only recommend a zoning ordinance or zoning amendment to its legislative body. Michigan statutes delegate ordinance-making authority only to the following elected legislative bodies: township board of trustees (MCL 41.181 et seq.), city council (MCL 117.3 et seq.), general law village council (MCL 67.1 et seq.), home rule village council (MCL 78.1 et seq.) and very limited ordinance making authority to county boards of commissioners. 

A master plan is a policy document that guides the physical development of a community. Think of it like the homework -- the compendium of facts, research, record of public support and participation, and reasoning behind what would become local ordinances. This would include the zoning ordinance, which the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act requires “shall be based on a plan…” (MCL 125.3203(1)). 

A zoning ordinance is the law. It regulates things including land use; building form, placement, size, spacing, parcel area, width, depth; types of land uses allowed in a district. Because an ordinance is law, it includes consequences for violations. Consequences can be a civil infraction ticket, fines, criminal charges, injunctions, and so on. 

In order for a zoning ordinance to be based on a plan, the plan should be written first. The zoning ordinance will come next and will implement parts of the master plan. Often, the plan zoning is based upon something called a “zoning plan.” The zoning plan can be a chapter in the master plan, a separate document of the master plan or integrated throughout the master plan. A “master plan” is defined in the Michigan Planning Enabling Act (MCL 125.3803(g)) to include the zoning plan from the Zoning Enabling Act’s section 203(1) (MCL 125.3203(1)). 

Typically, the zoning plan part of a master plan, in addition to the rest of the plan, will include: 

  • A proposed schedule of regulation by district that includes at least building height, lot area, bulk and setbacks. 
  • Standards or criteria to be used to consider rezoning consistent with the master plan. 
  • A description of each zoning district and proposed zoning map. 
  • An explanation of how the land use categories on the future land use map relate to the districts on the zoning map. 
  • A description of each zoning district, general purpose of each district and the general locations for those types of districts. 

To demonstrate how the master plan serves as a basis for zoning and is not itself an enforceable document, look at this generic example of master plan language: “Goal No X: Preserve and enhance the YYY corridor as a safe, efficient, and visually attractive…” First, it is a “goal,” not a directive. Then, the plan says there is more work to do before specific actions can be taken for this goal. How does a zoning permit or site plan review applicant “satisfy” a goal when they are beholden to actions being undertaken by a different entity? 

The master plan is not a regulation and should not be expected to do double duty as a law. Statute gives ordinance-making authority only to legislative bodies not planning commissions. Master plans are not written in regulatory fashion. They lack language with clear directives or requirements. Many master plans are written with goals that are often best-case scenarios of the future. Many times, the purpose of the goal is to set a direction, but not a definitive expected outcome. Finally, master plans are often written with objectives (measurable progress points) and strategies (policy, tasks and methods) to be carried out by various agencies of the local government, not property owners or zoning permit applicants. 

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information. 

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