Whether your project involves wind, solar or communications, when it falls under local jurisdiction the fundamentals for success are the same. Best practices for zoning can be grouped into three categories: Research, Relationships and Record. In this first article of a three part series we examine the research and preparation process.
The foundation for success is thorough research and preparation. This will enable you to steer your project to the most appropriate location and avoid fatal flaws. Know the Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? of your project inside and out so you can confidently present it and explain why it is a good fit for its surroundings and a benefit to the community.
During the initial planning stage, determine which local jurisdictions will have authority over your project area and acquire and study each jurisdiction’s comprehensive plan, zoning ordinance, zoning map, and any other relevant regulations or planning documents. A thorough knowledge of which districts permit the use, what the approval process is, and what current setbacks and design restrictions may apply will enable you to guide the project location and design to minimize opposition and maximize the chances of approval.
Once you have a solid feel for how the regulatory process in each jurisdiction works you may see areas of strength or weakness in your proposed project or ordinance language that may have a negative impact depending on how it is interpreted. Call the planner to see if their interpretation matches your own. If so, have them document it. If there are weaknesses or differences in interpretation that can’t be avoided or existing regulations don’t adequately address your proposed use, an appropriately crafted ordinance amendment may be in everyone’s interest.
Pay close attention to the actual physical environment. An area where your project is not allowed on paper might actually be the most appropriate from a local perspective and a rezoning would be widely supported. Conversely, an area that appears to permit your project may be next to planned residential subdivisions or other uses that are locally seen as incompatible. When you do select a location, be intimately familiar with it. Drive around it and see what the neighbors are going to see. Take note of other nearby uses and structures and the condition of neighboring properties so you can speak knowledgeably about compatibility and any anticipated impacts. If there are factors that are best appreciated in the field, a pre-meeting field trip by the decision makers may be appropriate.
If you are able to get a feel for the internal dynamics of the zoning process it will help guide where you focus your efforts and how you tailor your presentation. Does the planning staff have such an influential role that most decisions closely follow staff recommendation? Are the decision makers strongly independent and likely to chart their own course regardless of staff recommendation or public comment? Are they so sensitive to public comment that projects rarely get approved if there is any opposition present? Are the meetings generally lengthy and formal with detailed questioning and review of ordinance standards or more likely to be quick and informal with lots of discretion and few details (in which case establishing a good record of the decision may be more of a concern)? Have there been other similar applications in the past? What were the issues and outcomes?
Know the community and your likely audience at the meeting. How does the community see itself and how does your project fit into that vision? What are the hot issues? What is the local economy based on? Is there more concern about tourism and aesthetics or economic development and job creation? Are you more likely to be explaining aviation impacts to crop dusters, setback compliance to adjacent homeowners, or cultural impacts to tribal representatives? Will a site in the extreme corner of a parcel be frowned on because of the proximity to neighboring parcels or applauded because it preserves active farmland and doesn’t interfere with center-pivot irrigation? The answers to these types of questions are likely to be different for each community. Forewarned is forearmed.
Ralph Wyngarden (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Zoning Director at Faulk & Foster. He has served wind and solar developers and wireless telecommunications providers in markets across the country for the past nine years and is responsible for the development and maintenance of best practices for zoning and permitting for Faulk & Foster’s telecommunications and energy departments.