Planning commissions need a good paper trail

Effective planning commissions do a very good of documenting their decision making process.

Planning Commissions play a vital role for their communities. Planning Commissions throughout Michigan are making land use decisions that impact the type, locations, and in some instances the design, of development occurring in their respective cities, villages and townships. The site plan review process allows council-appointed volunteers to review plans for new development projects and to review plans of developers looking to reoccupy buildings or redevelop properties. In conducting their reviews, good planning commissions are mindful of the city’s comprehensive plan (if they have one) and the requirements of the city’s zoning ordinance.

Based on the community’s ordinance, the planning commission will make recommendations on issues such as rezonings and may be the final local authority on some site plan reviews. The extent of their decision-making is clearly defined in their zoning code, and good commissions work hard to make decisions that are consistent with their approved planning documents and zoning codes.

The foundation of good decision-making is good documentation. Because the decisions planning commissions make can be controversial, in some instances, these decisions will lead to litigation. If plans that are reviewed by the commission are approved, denied or approved subject to conditions, the rationale for those decisions must be documented.

Process times for applications should be followed and clearly communicated to applicants. The community has the primary responsibility of making sure a consistent process for reviewing applications is followed and that decisions are not “arbitrary” and “capricious.” All written decisions should have a finding of fact that defines the applicable rules and ordinances that apply to each case subject to review and the determinations explaining why an application is approved, denied or why other requirements are applicable to the project.

Such a process meets two critical functions for communities. First, they ensure a fair and consistent process. Secondly, they define the reasons and rationale for the decisions made. If done correctly, they may reduce the community’s exposure to litigation and strengthen the community’s case that their decisions are grounded in a rational process guided by an overall master plan and a complimentary zoning ordinance.

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