Do you require training for your zoning administrator? You should

Zoning administrators are among the most important local officials – how well they do, or not do - their jobs have a great impact on the future of their communities.

Time to require training and certification of your zoning administrator. Photo credit: Kurt Schindler l MSU Extension
2020 ZAC Participants engaged in a hands-on site plan review exercise busy applying what they learned to real life scenarios. | Photo by: MSU Citizen Planner Photo was taken in February 2020.

Zoning administrators are among the most important local officials. They are at the front line of new development in a community and how well they do their job has a great effect on the future of their community. Unlike building inspectors who must pass state exams and take continuing education classes in order to practice, there is no law requiring training for zoning administrators.

However, there is the Zoning Administrator Certificate Program (ZAC) from Michigan State University Extension offered annually statewide. There are now hundreds of zoning administrators with professional-level certificates working in Michigan. The goal of program trainers is to raise the bar for professionalism and knowledge of the job.

The rigorous training requires a substantial time commitment, which includes completion of eight modules leading to a certificate for those who pass an exam covering all modules. Before taking the training, an individual must complete the Citizen Planner Program, either classroom-based or online, or hold the AICP (American Institute of Certified Planners) credential.

Frequently, employment ads for zoning administrator positions include phrases like “MSU zoning administrator certification required” or “MSU zoning administrator certification preferred.” It is a reflection of the importance of training in planning and zoning as an effective risk management strategy, and aligns with MSU Extension training recommendations for zoning/planning staff.

This program has been offered in 18 different locations around that state, and in 2021, for the first time, the program will be delivered fully virtually. The decision to do so is made in light of COVID-19 and the interest in protecting the health, safety, and welfare of all participants and trainers.

The program teaches techniques for zoning administration that reduce legal risks to the individual and their community. Topics include:

  • Job Description/Responsibilities - What does a Zoning Administrator do? This module answers that question as we explore the roles and responsibilities of a zoning administrator and how to carry out those duties ethically.
  • Legal Issues - This session will focus on the legal context that zoning administrators serve in, including key legal issues dealing with property rights, the rights and obligations of municipalities and their agents, and potential areas for liability and steps to minimize those risks. We will feature key summaries of court opinions relevant to zoning.
  • Common Procedures and Use of Forms - This module details what zoning forms should exist, what should be included in those forms, how to draft a form based on ordinance standards, and how to process them. Be sure to have copies of your own zoning forms and processes so you can review them against best practices for potential improvements.
  • Site Plans - Site plans are an important part of the zoning and approval process, but they are also very detailed and technical documents. This session will focus on what should be in a site plan, best practices for reviewing site plans, how to identify deficiencies in a site plan, and strategies to correct those deficiencies. Participants will have an opportunity to practice reviewing a site plan to see if the ordinance standards have been met.
  • Files - Keeping detailed and organized records is vital for a zoning administrator but can also be a daunting challenge. This session introduces best practices for preparing files, adopted office guidelines, reports and records, and highlights several systems for organizing files.
  • Inspections and Violations - Ensuring compliance with the zoning ordinance can be challenging at times. This session provides participants with a variety tools for handling potential zoning ordinance violations from identification to possible enforcement action. There will also be an opportunity to share inspection and enforcement strategies from your communities.
  • Interactions with Others- Zoning administration does not happen in a vacuum, you will often have to work with other departments, partners, and agencies as part of a larger team. This module will help equip you with the tools to keep those interactions and relationships productive and healthy.
  • Customer Service - As much as zoning administrators work with policies and forms, the role is also very people focused. This session hones in on those soft skills that can help build positive relationships with the community and even deescalate tense situations - great skills to have professionally and personally.  

ZAC participants have found the program so beneficial that when asked, 94% of respondents stated they would recommend that all zoning administrators attend the program.

Each participant receives a ZAC training binder filled with resources, the Michigan Planning Guidebook, 2nd Ed. and the Michigan Zoning Guidebook, 3rd Ed., plus over 100 pages of summarized case law from key planning and zoning court cases in Michigan.  

Many communities often must balance the training and professional development that they can provide with difficult budget realities. In previous years, communities have budgeted over $1,000 to ensure their zoning administrator was able to receive this training (training costs, travel, lodging, etc.). This year, due to reduced costs with a fully virtual program, MSU Extension is offering this training for $395 per participant.

The 2021 ZAC Program will follow a hybrid model of live webinars plus self-paced online learning using MSU's learning management system - Desire 2 Learn (D2L). The program will begin Feb. 1 and run for five weeks with participants joining live webinars from 1:30 - 4 p.m. (Eastern) on Mondays, Feb. 1, 8, 15, 22, and March 1. ZAC Program office hours will run 11 a.m. to noon on Fridays, Feb. 5, 12, 19, 26, and March 5. Access to the D2L course will begin with the start of the program and participants will be responsible for completing online learning until the due date of the ZAC Program Exam on April 12.

How to Register

Registration will open Sept. 1, 2020. If you would like a reminder message when registration opens please email cplanner@msu.edu. More information can be found at: https://www.canr.msu.edu/zac

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