Why care about planning and zoning?
Being involved in planning and zoning is a great way to help shape the future of your community.
Ever wonder who decides who gets to build what in your neighborhood? Why are there certain types of businesses in one area and homes or parks in another? Why did they decide to put that building in front of this? Who makes the rules about what new buildings will look like? A group of people with power to determine the future vision of your community as well as make policy recommendations about development is a part of your local government’s planning and zoning function.
In Michigan, we have the Michigan Planning Enabling Act (2006) which gives power to local units of government (cities, villages, townships, or counties) to appoint residents to serve on a planning commission. This group of people writes a “Master Plan” to guide future development to best reflect the priorities and values of residents. Local units of government can choose to put this plan into action by adopting zoning. Zoning defines how the land can be used, how densely populated an area can be, what is required for new developments; essentially where and how development occurs.
The local elected body (city council, county commission, township board) may choose to adopt a Zoning Ordinance which is a local law to regulate the use of land and structures (according to the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act, 2006). They create a Zoning District map to designate which uses will be in which areas. Any property owner who wants to build a structure, must get approval from municipal staff or a body that carries out zoning approvals guided by the zoning ordinance, usually it is the planning commission. For certain proposed uses, property owners must submit a site plan application to be approved. If a property owner believes an exception should be made for their development due to very unique conditions, they can request a variance from the local Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), a second appointed governmental body that makes these types of decisions.
Residents have the opportunity to make their community better by getting the right things in the right places. If you want to make a difference, serving on your local planning commission or zoning board of appeals is a great place to start. The decisions made there can have a direct impact on the look and feel of a community, directly affect the value of your home, what you see around your neighborhood, and the amenities available to you. It is also a way to be involved in local government without having to run for election. The Northwest Michigan Council of Governments has created A Citizen’s Guide to Planning which details the benefits of local planning. Many communities have openings on these kinds of boards and are looking for enthusiastic residents to step up. Michigan State University Extension offers programs like Citizen Planner available to anyone interested in learning more about planning and zoning and how to be an effective planning commissioner or ZBA member.