The Fundamentals of Land Use Planning

Land Development
Contact: Nicholas Julian
Senior Program Manager, Land Use
(202) 266-8309

The land development process has become increasingly complex and time-consuming over the years as developers are asked to satisfy a growing list of public objectives. While “all land use is still local,” there are more regulatory agencies involved at all levels of government than ever before.

The federal government is now heavily influencing local land development approvals through an expanding array of environmental regulations and new grant programs that encourage local governments to reform local land-use plans and policies. The building industry needs to get involved early in such reform efforts to ensure that its perspective and experience are represented, and that proposed new policies are based in evidence, not just theory.

These Are the Core Principles of Effective Land Use Planning

NAHB endorses the concept of Smart Growth, which includes the following key elements:

  1. Anticipating and planning for economic development and population growth in a timely, orderly and predictable manner.
  2. Establishing a long-term comprehensive plan in each local jurisdiction that makes available an ample supply of land for residential, commercial, recreational and industrial uses and sets aside meaningful open space. These plans should also protect environmentally sensitive areas and maintain a balance between the environment and growth. Jurisdictions should plan for population change by adequately planning for enough housing, at various price points and of varying size and design, to meet the needs of a growing and diverse population.
  3. Developments that comply with the policies and regulations established by the community should be allowed to proceed without unreasonable oversight from relevant agencies.
  4. Removing and avoiding the creation of policy barriers and avoiding creating new barriers that impede innovative land-use planning techniques to be used.
  5. Ensuring that the actions of all levels of government address the affordability of all housing.
  6. Ensuring that policies enhance rather than limit consumer choice and that these policies provide solutions that meet the needs of consumers and the concerns of neighborhoods.
  7. Planning and constructing new schools, roads, transit systems, water and sewer treatment facilities and other public infrastructure in a timely manner to anticipate and keep pace with the demand for jobs and housing and finding fair and broad-based ways to underwrite the costs of infrastructure investment that benefit the entire community.
  8. Ensuring that the process for reviewing site-specific land development applications is reasonable, predictable and fair for applicants.
  9. Ensuring that policies enacted to achieve sound growth and environmental principles are supported by sound science, including field-tested, empirical and peer-reviewed data.

When used appropriately and in concert with market forces, Smart Growth can serve as a blueprint for planning and building an even better America in the years ahead.

The Role of Land Use Planning in Sustainable Development

To create sustainable communities, land use planners need to look at a variety of housing options to not only provide enough housing to sustain demand, but to offer a range of price points as well. Today’s housing options primarily tend to focus on single-family housing or high-rise apartment, with a lack of options in between.

One way many communities in the United States are increasing density while maintaining a streetscape that is compatible with single-family housing types is to incorporate the concept of “missing middle” housing types. Missing middle housing can assist in both increasing the number of units built and providing units for a wide variety of price points. This involves allowing a broader diversity of housing types than most ordinances allow today, but that used to be built in many communities historically.

Missing middle housing examples include:

  • Single-family cottages
  • Duplexes
  • Townhomes
  • Bungalow courts
  • Carriage houses

These and other missing middle housing types provide more units on less land than traditional single-family homes.

Environmental Impact Assessments in Land Use Planning

Site planning is the process by which developers prepare a development plan for a particular site. The site plan must balance private and public objectives and interests. This is the point at which land use regulations get applied to a piece of property.

The site planning process involves:

  • Natural resource analysis
  • Site analysis/context
  • Market analysis
  • Financial analysis
  • Plan approval

The purpose of the natural resource analysis is to fully understand what is — and isn’t — on the property and how those resources may impact a development plan. It identifies constrained areas, “no build” areas, and opportunities to use resources as amenities.

The site analysis includes looking at what happened to the site previously, adjacent land uses, access to the site, infrastructure capacity and availability, and how the land is zoned. It also includes consideration of any limitations placed on the land through covenants or deed restrictions, environmental constraints, and neighborhood attitudes and concerns.

Once these steps are complete, the natural resource, market, and financial analyses are applied to determine the site design and create a concept plan — which is where negotiations with the community begin.

The Role of Public Participation in Land Use Regulation

Local politics involve many contentious issues, and lots of different players and interests. Decision-making may be based on a complex number of circumstances. Many times, vocal neighborhood groups can sway decision-making based on emotion instead of empirical data and careful planning. This can lead to decisions that are contrary to city policies, such as comprehensive plans and zoning requirements.

The typical officials involved in the local regulatory process are:

  • Mayor: Essentially the community’s CEO
  • City or County Council or Board of Supervisors: Elected officials with the legislative functions of approving the comprehensive plan, enacting ordinances, and imposing taxes and fees.
  • Planning Commission: An advisory group to the legislative body appointed by Chief Executive or City/County Council. This group approves subdivision and site plans and recommends changes to or adoption of the comprehensive plan, zoning ordinances, and subdivision regulations.
  • Planning Department: Staff charged with developing draft comprehensive plan and implementing regulations, performing studies to support the plan, and making recommendations on plan and development applications. Some communities have no planning staff and retain outside consultants to provide these services.
  • Board of Appeals or Adjustment: Local body or hearing examiner that hears appeals of decisions by zoning administrator, planning commission, or county or city board (i.e. reviews development denials when requested and also may consider requests for variances and waivers).

Various citizens and interest groups can help define a community’s values and goals by participating in community surveys and focus groups and in public meetings and hearings during the formation of the comprehensive plan. They are also given formal opportunities to comment on any proposed amendments to the plan once it’s adopted and on specific development applications.

Local policies start with a comprehensive plan and then include links to a capital improvement plan (CIP) and implementing ordinances.

The CIP is the budget for carrying out the comprehensive plan, and the implementing ordinances are the requirements imposed on development so that it presumably occurs in accordance with the community goals set out in the plan. Local policies and regulations are developed to assist the local officials in decision-making, in an attempt to carry out more orderly and successful development in a community over time and ensure predictable outcomes.

The ideal end result: Components that work together to attain the community’s vision and goals and direct existing and future land use.

What Are Communities Looking For Today?

Today’s consumers want communities that:

  • Protect and/or provide access to the natural environment
  • Use land in an efficient and innovative way
  • Encourage multiple transportation options
  • Incorporate a mix of land uses
  • Are pedestrian friendly and walkable
  • Provide housing choices
  • Respect local traditions and community character
  • Take advantage of infill and redevelopment opportunities
  • Deliver a genuine experience of place

Use NAHB’s land use planning resources to help navigate the process, overcome land use regulation hurdles, and create communities where present and future generations can thrive.

NAHB has developed Land Use 101 to better equip members and HBAs to effectively engage in land-use policy discussions. It includes a series of MS PowerPoint presentations, with talking points in the notes page for each slide, which members and HBA staff can tailor for presentations in local and regional forums. When you download these slides, we encourage users to add slides containing local examples and data wherever possible to make the connection to local issues and debates.

Land Use 101 also includes NAHB briefing papers, credentialed research reports and other resources that support the advocacy logic used in the presentations. We also recommend that you print out all MS PowerPoint presentations using the “Notes” setting under “Print” function to have as talking points for presenting the PowerPoint slides.

Land Development Checklist This checklist outlines the typical process developers should go through, from looking at a property prior to purchase to evaluating the site potential, obtaining development approvals, and preparing finished lots for sale to builders.