Embarking on planning and zoning for the first time? Think it through!

Local units of government without zoning, or townships subject to county zoning that might be considering adopting their own zoning ordinance, should think the process and requirements through carefully.

For a Michigan local unit of government that is considering adopting its own zoning ordinance for the first time, there are numerous steps that must be taken in a very particular manner. This is not a decision to be entered into lightly and must be carefully considered. The steps outlined here and in the various check lists, including the order steps are done and the timely and proper notices that must be sent are very important. The reasons for the steps, notices, checks and balances, etc. are to ensure necessary due process which is a constitutionally-protected right.

First, the legislative body (township board, village or city council, or county board) acts to create a planning commission with the powers and duties created under the Michigan Planning Enabling Act (MPEA), Public Act 33 of 2008 (being MCL 125.3801 et seq.). The planning commission is created by adoption of an ordinance:  Land Use SeriesSample #1B: Ordinance to create a planning commission.” The process is outlined in Land Use SeriesCheck List #1A: Create a Planning Commission.”  Alternatively, two or more townships, villages, cities or a combination thereof can come together to create a single ‘municipal joint planning commission’.  Joint planning commissions can be formed to work in all or part of two or more municipalities. It can be set up for just planning, just zoning, or both, and can have some or all of the other powers of a planning commission (see graphic).  The process to create a joint planning commission is done through an agreement between the founding governments and by adoption of an ordinance by each founding government. The process is outlined in Land Use SeriesSample #1O: Joint Planning Commission Agreement/Ordinance.”

Once the planning commission or joint planning commission is created and members are appointed, its first order of business will be to draft and adopt a set of bylaws. A planning commission is required to have bylaws under section 19 of the MPEA. A sample set of bylaws is available in Land Use SeriesSample #1E: Bylaws for a planning commission.” Sometimes a planning commission also has a code of conduct: Land Use SeriesSample #8: Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals Code of Conduct.” Upon the planning commission’s adoption of bylaws, the next order of business is to prepare and adopt a master plan for unit of government. Notification, preparation (including content) and adoption of a master plan must be done following the exact requirements of the MPEA. The statutorily required and best practice suggested content of a master plan is outlined in Land Use SeriesCheck List #1F: Content of a Plan.” The process of adopting a master plan is detailed in Land Use SeriesCheck List #1G: Adoption of a Plan in Michigan.”

After the planning commission has prepared and adopted the master plan, only then can a zoning ordinance be prepared. The master plan must be prepared first because the zoning ordinance of the unit of government must be based on a plan per section 203 of the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (MZEA), Public Act 110 of 2006 (being MCL 125.3101 et seq.). Just like the process for adopting a master plan, the process for adopting a zoning ordinance must follow a very particular process as detailed the MZEA and outlined in Land Use SeriesCheck List #2 For Adoption of a Zoning Ordinance in Michigan.”  The suggested organization of a zoning ordinance, as well as an indication of the various topics covered in a zoning ordinance can be found in Land Use SeriesOrganization and Codification of a Zoning Ordinance.”

From time-to-time, the zoning ordinance will need to be amended and there is a process detailed in statute for that too, as outlined in Land Use SeriesCheck List #4 For Adoption of a Zoning Ordinance Amendment (including some PUDs) in Michigan.” Additionally, the master plan will need to be reviewed by the planning commission at least every five years and a decision will need to be made as to whether the master plan needs to be updated, rewritten, or is okay as is based on current conditions in the unit of government. Suggested steps for the five-year plan review (as it is known) is detailed in Land Use SeriesCheck List #1H: Five Year Plan Review.”  The graphic below and this article explain other duties of a planning commission.

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With the adoption of a zoning ordinance comes the need to name a zoning administrator (an individual, most often an employee of the local government), appoint members to the zoning board of appeals, and optionally, set fees for applications for zoning permits: Land Use SeriesHow to Set Permit Fees.” The zoning board of appeals’ first order of business will be to draft and adopt a set of rules of procedure.  The appeals board is indirectly required to have rules of procedure under various sections of the MZEA. A sample set of rules of procedure is available in Land Use SeriesSample #7: Zoning Board of Appeals Rules of Procedure.” Sometimes an appeals board also has a code of conduct: Land Use SeriesSample #8: Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals Code of Conduct.”

With the zoning ordinance being an inherently rigid document, there will be requests from landowners to use their property in ways that differ from the permitted uses listed in the zoning ordinance and when this happens the planning commission will need to follow the process to review special land use and administrative planned unit development requests as outlined in Land Use SeriesCheck List #5 For Processing a Zoning Special Use Permit (including some PUDs) in Michigan.” Similarly, the zoning board of appeals will from time to time be approached with variance requests and must follow the process in Land Use SeriesCheck List #6 For Processing a Zoning Appeal and Variance in Michigan.”

This article outlines, in a very simplistic way, the basic process for a unit of government to embark on planning and zoning with the required detail that must be followed provided in the referenced Land Use Series pamphlets. While the pamphlets follow state law and have been reviewed by experts in the field, the local unit of government and planning commission is encouraged to work with a municipal attorney that has experience in planning and zoning matters. Also, consult a Michigan State University Extension land use educator for more information on planning and zoning basics.

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