To plan or not to plan? Minimum contents of a master plan

For local governments that chose to adopt zoning, this is a moot question, as zoning must be based on a plan. Still, the minimum contents of a master plan are not well defined in law and communities have great latitude in developing a master plan.

Michigan local governments have the option to regulate the use of land through adoption of a zoning ordinance. If they elect to do so, they must follow the framework set forth in the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (MZEA). A basic requirement in the MZEA is that zoning shall be based on a plan. That means that if a community wishes to adopt a zoning ordinance, it must also prepare and adopt a master plan to serve as the basis for the various zoning districts throughout the jurisdiction. Therefore, communities must also follow the Michigan Planning Enabling Act (MPEA) for engaging in land use planning and preparing a master plan.

The MPEA allows communities great latitude in determining the contents of a master plan. It requires that a master plan “Make careful and comprehensive surveys and studies of present conditions and future growth within the planning jurisdiction with due regard to its relation to neighboring jurisdictions” (Sec. 31(2)(a)). This might be considered the data, or fact book, for the plan.

In addition, “A master plan shall address land use and infrastructure issues and may project 20 years or more into the future. A master plan shall include maps, plats, charts, and descriptive, explanatory, and other related matter and shall show the planning commission’s recommendations for the physical development of the planning jurisdiction” (Sec. 33(1)). A master plan shall include those of the following subjects that reasonably can be considered as pertinent to the future development of the planning jurisdiction:

    1. A land use plan that includes a classification and allocation of land for various uses (Sec. 33(2)(a);
    2. Recommendations on infrastructure including transportation for all users of roadways (Sec. 33(2)(b));
    3. Recommendations for redevelopment or rehabilitation of blighted areas (Sec. 33(2)(c));
    4. For a local unit of government that has adopted a zoning ordinance, a zoning plan (Sec. 33(2)(d)) and
    5. Recommendations for implementing any of the master plan’s proposals (Sec. 33(2)(e)).

According to the MPEA (Sec. 7(2)(d)), the master plan “Includes, among other things, promotion of or adequate provision for [one] or more of the following:

      1. A system of transportation to lessen congestion on streets and provide for safe and efficient movement of people and goods by motor vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, and other legal users.
      2. Safety from fire and other dangers.
      3. Light and air.
      4. Healthful and convenient distribution of population.
      5. Good civic design and arrangement and wise and efficient expenditure of public funds.
      6. Public utilities such as sewage disposal and water supply and other public improvements.
      7. Recreation.
      8. The use of resources in accordance with their character and adaptability.”

And that is the basic extent of the requirements in the MPEA for the contents of a master plan. The lack of specificity leaves some communities scratching their heads when it comes to preparing a plan for the first time. It is perhaps easiest to think in terms of major sections of a plan that must be present to minimally satisfy the MPEA.

A basic approach to organization is to organize the plan into two major sections – the plan that is the main part of the document including the goals, objectives and policies that guide the physical development of the community (Sec. 33) and the background information or fact book that provides data and analysis that support the plan (Sec. 31).

The fact book portion of the plan includes most of the maps, plats and charts as well as descriptive, explanatory and other related matter (Sec. 33(1)). It also includes documentation that the planning commission made careful and comprehensive surveys and studies of present conditions and future growth within the planning jurisdiction with due regard to its relation to neighboring jurisdictions (Sec. 31(2)(a)).

The rest of the plan might then be organized into a section addressing land use and infrastructure issues projecting 20 years or more into the future, including a future land use map if the community has zoning (Sec. 33(2)(d)). Finally, the planning commission’s recommendations for the physical development of the planning jurisdiction (Sec. 33(1)), and recommendations for implementing the master plan’s proposals (Sec. 33(2)(c)).

Of course, the above two major components of a master plan can be quite lengthy and detailed, but they do not have to be. Many communities have satisfied the MPEA’s master plan requirements with quite streamlined plans. While the minimum components of a master plan outlined herein will satisfy the MPEA, a ‘barebones’ approach probably will not be sufficient for success in the New Economy based on Placemaking principles. The Michigan State University Extension Land Use Series pamphlet entitled Contents of a Master Plan goes into much more detail on recommended best planning practice plan content.

Communities are encouraged to seek help from a qualified consultant in preparing or updating a master plan. The Michigan Association of Planning maintains a list of planners in private practice that can assist. If your community is not yet ready to begin preparing or updating a master plan, contact a Michigan State University Extension land use educator for assistance with ‘planning to plan’.

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