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Issues in Land Use Law & Zoning

An Introduction to Subdivision Regulations

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At first glance, subdivision regulations can appear to be a confusing collection of rules and restrictions designed to confound the developer and planning commissioner alike. Fortunately, the regulations are generally not as inaccessible as they first appear, and in many communities subdivision regulations provide the backbone of a successful planning program. This two-part article will provide you with an understanding of the basic structure of subdivision regulations. …

The Application and Approval Process

Generally, subdivisions are divided into “major” or “minor” applications. Minor subdivisions are those that, because of the small number of lots created, or the lack of a need for public streets or other public facilities, can be approved in an expedited manner. Major subdivisions, in contrast, require a more extensive review.

For both types of subdivisions, the first step in the approval process is often the submission of a sketch plat, on which the applicant presents the basic concept of the subdivision. A meeting is typically held between the applicant and the local planning official to determine which procedure the applicant must follow — major or minor subdivision. Additionally, the sketch plat allows the local planning official to initially determine if the project complies with local, state and federal law, including the jurisdiction’s zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan. Projects which comply with all applicable regulations are allowed to proceed to preliminary plat approval. Sketch plats are also frequently circulated to other local and state agencies for review and comment. Fundamentally, the sketch plat serves as an early warning system for both the applicant and the municipality.

Following sketch plat approval, the subdivider may be directed to apply for preliminary plat approval, or bypass that step and apply directly for final plat approval. The preliminary plat is a detailed set of documents and maps, showing: lot and street layout; connections to utilities; the location of natural features and topography; and the location of nearby parks and recreational facilities. The preliminary plat is normally first reviewed by staff for completeness and compliance with the design and development standards contained in the subdivision regulations. Following this, it is referred to the planning commission for evaluation. The planning commission usually holds a public hearing on the preliminary plat before taking action.

Planning commissions often approve preliminary plats, but impose various conditions. For example, a commission may condition approval on dedication of land for public parks; hook-ups to public sewer and water; construction of interior and perimeter streets; or payment of impact fees.

Preliminary plat approval is a significant milestone for the applicant, who can then proceed with some confidence that the commission will approve a consistent final plat. The final plat provides more detailed engineering and design drawings — it should not, however, contain significant changes in the development’s overall layout and design. …

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