It is inevitable that proposed new development will meet stiff opposition in the approval process. In the minds of many people, any new development will impact everything from traffic on existing roads to consuming valued open space. Some plan commission meetings resemble open warfare between developers and concerned citizens, with the plan commission acting as reluctant referees.

Neither the applicant nor the plan commissioner wishes to participate in these angry and unproductive meetings. With an understanding that open warfare can erupt at any time, what’s a plan commission to do? Whether it is a new project or a routine decision before the plan commission (or zoning board), we recommend the municipality advise (or preferably, require) the applicant to prepare for the public presentation and hearing process.

It pays for the applicant to be well prepared, and to approach the community with a willingness to compromise.

Increasing the Odds for Approval
It is the duty of a good municipal planning staff to advise the applicant concerning the preparation of the application and public presentation procedures. These procedures vary from community to community. Both the individual who has never processed a request before and the most experienced developers appreciate this coaching because it allows them to prepare and present their request in the “best possible light.”

It also helps the plan commission, since it informs the applicant of the process of the meeting and the type of information the plan commission desires to see publicly presented. It gives the applicant time to organize a public presentation, including expert presentations, and display drawings to illustrate important elements of their proposal.

Below is a list of 10 guidelines we give to applicants to help them “increase the odds” of making a winning presentation:

  1. Do your homework. Too often, applicants before the plan commission do not come prepared and “ad-lib” responses to pointed questions put forth by citizens during the public hearing. We recommend to applicants that they attend meetings to see how the process works and to gain an understanding of the type of questions raised by citizens and the members. We urge all applicants to prepare for the meeting and come ready to answer questions. We also suggest that large “display-sized” drawings and maps be prepared and used to illustrate the key points of the applicant’s request.
  2. Understand the community’s growth policies. Every community views growth and development differently. Some welcome new development while others are somewhat more particular and support only certain types of new development. We recommend applicants take time to review the Comprehensive Plan and discuss their proposal with local officials. These discussions usually identify whether the proposal conforms with the general intent of the Comprehensive Plan and unwritten desires of the plan commission and community. The closer the proposal conforms to the written and unwritten growth policies, the greater likelihood of acceptance of the proposal. Crafting a development proposal that conforms to the intent of the community growth policies will obviously receive a more favorable consideration than one that doesn’t.
  3. Identify how the project will benefit the community. In the fiscally constrained local governmental financial environment of today, many local governments examine the financial merits of every new development proposal. They assess whether the cost for municipal services and infrastructure will exceed the tax revenue generated by the real estate property, sales and income taxes the community will receive as a result of the new development. We suggest that applicants consider having a cost-benefit analysis completed to test whether the proposed development will pay “its fair share” of costs. In cases where the development does not meet local financial obligations, we encourage the developer to reconsider the type of development proposed or to evaluate the possibility of donations to offset potential revenue losses.
  4. Go-the-extra-mile attitude. Gaining approval of a new development is often a negotiation process. Developers, realizing that communities do not have to approve a request, spend more money and time in the preparation of the application for approval. We see more attention to the growth policies of the communities being given by the developers and a greater sensitivity to meeting the fiscal needs of the community than in the past. Applicants who are ready to “go this additional mile” are received with enthusiasm and have the greatest chance to secure approvals.
  5. Know your legal position. Development is governed by a number of local ordinances, state laws and regulations. In addition, there can be private restrictions in the form of deed restrictions, easements and “clouded” ownership. Applications are sometimes submitted without completing research of permits and restrictions which may alter the development proposal when discovered. We recommend that property title research be completed, and that applications for “curb cuts,” water/sewer connections, storm water systems, floodplain alteration and wetland permits be submitted as needed, as early as possible in the concept development process. This knowledge assures that required permits can be obtained and no legal objection to the development of the proposed concept will be encountered. We also recommend applicants know the rules prescribed by the zoning ordinance for the subject property. This knowledge gives a baseline density determination for the property and a measurement tool for any negotiated changes. 
  6. Don’t overlook the opportunity for innovation. Innovative planning techniques such as traditional neighborhood development, zero-lot line development, transit-orientated development, cluster development and the like are being discussed as means to achieve smart growth and reduce “urban sprawl.” We encourage developers to recognize that communities are willing to consider innovative development, sometimes of higher density with less development costs, where a carefully crafted development plan fulfills local community development goals. Obviously, in cases where an application supports a desired innovative development concept, the application approval process is likely to be easier. 
  7. Be willing to scale back. Developers seek to maximize their return on investment in land, often seeking to build the greatest number of housing units (or other buildings) as permitted by the zoning ordinance. We recommend applicants take a hard look at the development opportunity in light of the community plan and unwritten development polices before finalizing any concept plan for a specific project. Proposing maximum density of development for a site viewed as a lower density development site by the plan commission, will almost always give rise to lengthy debate and review. 
  8. Trade density for open space or cost reductions. Applicants should recognize the overwhelming desire expressed by citizens for more open space. Innovative design that clusters development allowing greater-sized open space areas are viewed positively by most communities. We encourage developers to consider asking for additional density for provision of larger land areas left in open space, especially with creative designs that provide access to the open space through the total development. 
  9. Listen and show respect for local officials. This is another obvious statement. However, we have found that many times, applicants bluster into a community demanding prompt approval due to a “short deadline.” It must be recognized that plan commissioners must deal with residents’ concerns and need time to review and complete their job. Applicants who rush the process and “push” the decision process without regard for the plan commission members’ time and need for review seriously hinder a respectful dialogue. 
  10. Say what you mean and mean what you say. We have attended meetings where applicants “promise the world” and conveniently forget the promises once the development is completed. We caution applicants to be honest in their commitments and fulfill their promises.

It is important to understand the role of each member participating in the decision process: applicant, plan commission and staff. Not every project will pass through the approval process without change. Preparation and understanding is the “key” to achieving an approval supported by all parties of the process. Understanding and applying the above principles provides a higher chance of success. iBi

Previously published in the Illinois Municipal Review. Reprinted with permission. Craig Hullinger, AICP, is the former director of economic development for the City of Peoria and co-owner of Ruyle Hullinger & Associates. Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP, is a professor at Purdue University North Central and founder of Public Consulting Team.