Zoning permit approvals should not happen in a vacuum

You apply for a zoning permit. What happens between application and getting, or not, the permit? It should be a set step-by-step process.

Ever wonder what a zoning administrator does between the time you apply for a zoning permit and when you get word you’re your permit was approved or denied?

The following outlines what the zoning administrator is supposed to do, but not necessarily what is actually done. It really does not matter what type of zoning ordinance the administrator is working with – the process is basically the same. So it does not matter if it is traditional, conventional Michigan zoning; Euclidian zoning; impact-based zoning; form-based zoning; or some other style.

In all types of zoning, the zoning administrator is the main player. Often that person is the “face” for the community for newcomers and the only contact the public has concerning zoning and land use. The zoning administrator is key in the development of the community because his/her decisions have long-term impacts on a community. Errors made often cannot be corrected and neighborhoods and communities must live with the consequences. Also, decisions can have major financial repercussions if those decisions result in violation of various constitutional rights including due process, equal protection, property rights and so on.

The steps taken often follow this order:

Step 1: The zoning administrator receives the application, marks when it is received and receipts in any fees paid.

Step 2: Then the task is to determine if the permit application is complete. It is never wise to try to process an incomplete application. If it is not complete, it will be returned to the applicant with a list of what is missing.

Step 3: If it is complete, then the zoning administrator determines what type of a zoning case it is, double checking to ensure that the applicant is seeking the appropriate approval. Types of zoning cases include a zoning permit, special use permit, planned unit development, zoning appeal or variance.

Step 4: The administrator reviews, or searches, past records to find all the past permits, variances, which have already been approved for the parcel of land in question.

Step 5: The administrator has to determine what on the parcel, if anything, is grandfathered because it existed before the zoning ordinance or before an amendment to the zoning ordinance. These legal pre-existing activities or land uses are called “nonconforming uses,” “nonconforming buildings” or a “nonconforming parcel.”

Step 6: The administrator needs to determine conformance with ordinance standards:

  • Locate property on the zoning map
  • Use a checklist, or something similar, to review all ordinance standards (parcel size, setbacks, building placement and size, type of use, form, etc.)
  • Much of this review is done by reviewing a site plan (a drawing of what is proposed on the parcel). That drawing should have the detail necessary to determine that many, if not most, of the ordinance standards are complied with.

Step 7: The zoning administrator makes a decision. The decision or action taken can be a number of different things depending on the type of zoning case it is (and what his/her jurisdiction is). Generally the decisions are:

  • Issue the permit. In doing this, the administrator makes a findings of fact, lists his/her reasons and announces the decision.
  • Deny the permit. In doing this, the administrator makes a findings of fact, lists his/her reasons (a specific list of standards in the zoning ordinance that were not met) and announces the decision.
  • If the administrator does not have the authority to make the decision, then his or her job is to prepare a summary of findings, maybe a recommendation (staff report and oral presentation), schedule the planning commission or zoning board of appeals meeting for the issue, possibly prepare hearing notices, and so on.

In summary, some cases are straight forward, some are complex. The individual doing this job needs a variety of skills. There is a “Michigan Zoning Administrator Certification Program” offered annually each spring by Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan State University Planning and Zoning Center.

Registration for this year’s offerings is open now; visit the MSU Planning and Zoning Center website for more details and a registration brochure.

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