Getting Out and About

Jeffrey A. Gordon, M.D.

In my last article, I talked about site plans being an important part of how your town’s planning and zoning commission reviews various types of proposed land use activities. Equally valuable are site walks. Although not always required for small, “simple” proposals, site walks complement and add to site plan reviews.

A site walk is when a planning and zoning commission goes to a parcel of land proposed for some type of development or activity. “Seeing is believing” when it comes to understanding what a site plan application says about the land, how it will be developed, how it will be used, what affects it may have on surrounding properties, and how it fits into your town’s overall community. The commission walks around the land and looks at different aspects of it. Aside from the physical exercise each commissioner gets by participating in a site walk, a much better understanding of the land and thus more insightful perspective into the land use application are obtained. Such information is brought back by the commission to the public hearing process that is conducted to review and decide upon the application.

An important distinction must be made between a site walk and a public hearing. Although the site walk is conducted by a planning and zoning commission and is open to the public, it is not a meeting of the commission at which there is discussion of and decision making about a land use application. Questions may be asked by commission members or members of the public at a site walk for clarification purposes only. Common such questions pertain to orienting people on the site walk as to north, south, east and west directions; where on the land are key topographical and geographical findings marked on a map; and the locations of proposed buildings, infrastructure or land changes. However, detailed questions about the application and any specific questioning of the applicant and/or professional staff, especially anything that gets into the decision making process of the Commission, is reserved for the public hearing. The public hearing is where all of these items are formally vetted out. Once the public hearing is closed, the planning and zoning commission debates and decides.

Here is a practical example of what I am talking about based upon my experience as a planning and zoning commissioner. Let’s say that there is an application for a new residential subdivision or a new commercial building in your town. Just hearing only about it without any details leaves one lacking very much for understanding what is being proposed. One may have an initial positive, negative, neutral or indifferent impression about it. But, that in and of itself does not mean there is enough information to make a good decision about it. One certainly does not want an initial impression to become an unintentional preconception or bias. So, a detailed application, site plan, and map are obtained. A lot may be written and the map may have many pages to it. A better idea of what is being proposed is starting to be gained.

However, all of this is written/drawn on paper or provided in an electronic format, and looked at by the commission in its meeting place (usually town hall). There still is the need to not just try to realistically visualize what it all looks like, but to actually see what it looks like. By taking all of this information to the land, the commission evaluates all of these things firsthand. A neighborhood of houses is being proposed? See where they are to be built. A street or parking lot is to be built? See where it is to be placed. Wetlands, watercourses, drainage areas, slopes, valleys, and other topography and geography are on a map? See what they look like. An office building or a store is to be constructed? See what the business activity may do to the surrounding areas? You get the idea. The planning and zoning commission likewise gets the idea and much more. It provides fairness not just to the applicant, but to the public as a whole because land use activities can be evaluated thoroughly based upon their individual merits within the context of the surrounding community.

At a public hearing after the site walk, when there is discussion about a slope being too steep to build upon, a parking lot encroaching upon wetlands, a driveway or access way having poor sight lines for a proper exit onto a street, or land changes adversely affecting surrounding areas, the commission, the applicant, and the public can have discussions using verified facts and literal knowledge of the land. After the public hearing, the commission likewise has a better ability to make good decisions based upon the regulations in effect in your town.

Sometimes, a site walk brings to attention an issue that either is not covered by zoning regulations, that requires an appropriate update to the zoning regulations (because the regulations are outdated) or that necessitates a common sense change to the regulations (because the regulations may cause an unfair, unintended burden to people in town). Your town’s planning and zoning commission should always be reviewing the applicability of your town’s zoning/subdivision regulations – it is one thing to write regulations, but another to make certain that the use of the regulations is doing what one intends in an effective, consistent, proper and fair manner.

There are times that reading about things in reports and looking at things on maps is not good enough to make an informed decision. In such cases, more is needed. That is why your town’s planning and zoning commission gets out and about on site walks. It may seem to be a simple thing to do, but the information gained provides the opportunity for a planning and zoning commission to gather together all that it needs to make the best decisions possible for your town’s growth and development while respecting the rights of individual land owners. So, the next time your town’s planning and zoning commission hosts a site walk, take a break from what you are doing, get a little bit of exercise, and see what it is all about and why it is done.

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