Zoning approvals should be prompt

A zoning decision should be prompt and without any undue delay. Incorporating deadlines for decisions into a zoning ordinance, or office policy, is a best practice.

Best planning practice suggests there should be deadlines for various zoning decisions. | Photo by Kurt Schindler
Best planning practice suggests there should be deadlines for various zoning decisions. | Photo by Kurt Schindler

An administrative decision about a zoning matter should not take an extraordinary length of time. In fact, best planning practice suggests there should be deadlines for various zoning decisions.

In Michigan, there isn’t a state statutory requirement for deadlines for zoning decisions although in some states there are. In Michigan, there is case law requiring proceeding without undue delay. “Without undue delay” is not a definitive number of days or setting a deadline. But, the requirement is: one cannot and should not delay for delay’s sake. Among other things, if the information needed is in hand, then a decision should be made.

Many zoning ordinances first require the zoning administrator review a zoning permit application (or site plan review, appeals application) to make sure it is complete. If the application is complete that means all the information asked for on the application form and required in the zoning ordinance has been provided. If the application is complete, and it is a well-designed application to insure everything the zoning ordinance might require is reflected on the application, then all the information that should be needed is there.

The zoning administrator makes a formal declaration the application is complete and notes the date and time he or she did so. Then, the zoning administrator routes the complete application to the planning commission, zoning board of appeals or to him or herself for further action. If the application is not complete, the zoning administrator returns it to the applicant with a list of what materials are missing.

Note these types of applications are concerning administrative zoning decisions (zoning permit, special use permit, site plan review, use variance, non-use [dimensional] variance, administrative planned unit developments [PUD]) not for legislative decisions (amending the zoning ordinance, amendatory PUD, adopting a new zoning ordinance).

The concept of proceeding without undue delay is further reinforced by the way a motion for postponing a decision constructed. The motion to postpone should always have three parts (or it may be considered out-of-order for zoning administration purposes):

  1. Listing what the information needed is to make a decision that is currently not available
  2. Whom will obtain and provide that information by a date certain
  3. The date of the meeting at which the agenda item will be brought up and acted upon

The motion to table an agenda item can only delay the action to later during that same meeting.

The point is, one does not delay a zoning administrative decision for delay’s sake. Actually, many developers indicate speed in making decisions to approve or deny a zoning permit is more important than getting an approval or having less strict regulations. Obtaining a definitive answer quickly is more important.

Because of this, there are communities which choose to include deadlines in their zoning ordinance for certain types of administrative decisions. Having zoning permits processed in less than a specified period of time is one of the best practices required of a community to be a Redevelopment Ready Community (RRC). The RCC Best Practices require a community have procedures and processes in place that include timelines so a task is completed within a certain amount of time. Those best practices include tracking systems so the applicant, municipality staff and others can see where an application is within the process.

For example, for a special use permit the zoning ordinance might have language that says something like “a special use permit shall be issued or denied within 60 calendar days from the date the application was found to be complete. This deadline may be extended upon the mutual agreement of the municipality and applicant.” There may be unusual circumstances where things become more complicated. In those instances the smart thing may be to extend the deadline. So, it is important to have that option available.

One might have the same 60 day deadline for a use variance, non-use (dimensional) variance, and site plan review. For an administrative PUD the deadline might be 90 days from the date an application is found to be complete.

For a zoning permit for a permitted use, or use by right, the zoning ordinance might have language that says something like “zoning permits shall be issued or denied within an annual average of seven business days from the date the application was found to be complete.” In this case, an annual average is used in order to recognize in small governments the only zoning administrator staff may be on vacation, off work due to illness, or other reasons for an occasional delay. The requirement is for an average deadline to be met. Some communities might make this office policy rather than included in a zoning ordinance.

Another tactic for expediting zoning permit reviews and action is to make sure the communities most desired type of development are handled as permitted uses. This type of zoning review and approval can be done the quickest – often only involving the zoning administrator. A lessor-desired development type would be handled as a special use permit or PUD. For example, if mixed use downtown development is desired (retail on the street-level first floor, office or residential on upper floors) make that the permitted use in the downtown zoning district. If it is not the desired mixed use development then handle that as a special use permit. The idea is make the most desired type of development the quickest and easiest type of zoning approval. This is one of the attributes of form based zoning.

Having definitive deadlines for acting on zoning permits is a “best practice,” is a requirement for the state’s Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) from Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and appears in MSU Extension materials as recommended practice. One might consider amending the zoning ordinance – so the zoning ordinance would have time limits, or deadlines for action or make it formal policy for the operation of the community’s planning and zoning program.

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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