Planning department takes on variety of topics

By Linda Bentley | November 12, 2008

Use of subjective review criteria problematic and may subject town to adverse legal action
CAVE CREEK – Last Thursday’s planning commission meeting began with a presentation by Senior Planner Larry Sahr in response to questions planning department staff has received from council members, commissioners and members of the public on a broad array of subjects.

Sahr explained the difference between a strategic plan and a tactical plan, stating a strategic plan is one that provides information, recommendations and guidelines to assist decision-makers.

Although terminology identifying a strategic plan by title can vary according to the organization, use and/or purpose, Sahr said it will typically contain a vision statement, a list of wide-ranging goals and associated objectives and makes recommendations as to possible implementation strategies.

Larry SahrA tactical plan, or specific project plan, is a plan created to address a specific task or to define project details. Again, Sahr said terminology to identify the tactical plan can vary by organization, use and/or purpose. However, the plan will provide precise direction to those responsible for implementing the goals, objectives and recommendations contained in the strategic plan.

Sahr also explained the difference between legislative actions versus administrative actions, the function of planning and zoning, the role of a planning commission, its legal authority, and what a commission can and cannot do.

In addition to explaining some general zoning terms and definitions, Sahr explained, more specifically, how the special use approval process works.

He first defined “special use” as “those uses which are generally compatible with the land uses permitted by right in a zone, but which require individual review of their location, design and configuration, and the imposition of conditions in order to ensure the appropriateness of the use at a particular location in a given zone.”

Only uses listed as special uses in a zone, as set forth in the zoning ordinance, may be allowed. Because certain uses are allowed by right, Sahr stated the approval or denial of a requested special use permit (SUP) is, by definition, an administrative action.

Like variances, which may only be granted if the application meets specific criteria set forth by state statute, a SUP application must meet the requirements set forth by the zoning ordinance.

Council has limited authority to impose conditions and safeguards necessary to protect and enhance the health, safety and welfare of the surrounding area and may only authorize a SUP after a review and recommendation by the planning commission.

As Sahr pointed out, the objectives of zoning legislation are to establish regulations, provide for all essential uses of land and buildings, and to ensure each use is in an appropriate place.

“While zoning helps to reduce blight,” he said, “zoning should not be thought of solely as a means of nuisance avoidance. Legitimate business operations, which may be undesirable in one location, may be appropriate land uses in another.”

Sahr stated it was important for both the planning commission and town council to evaluate SUPs on a case by case basis within the parameters of the zoning ordinance’s established review criteria.

In making a recommendation to deny a requested SUP, Sahr said it is a good idea for the commission to identify which of the established review criteria the applicant’s proposal failed to meet.

Sahr explained “due process” of law guaranteed to property owners under the Constitution when the government deprives them of property and said, “In evaluating the legitimacy of regulation or land use decision, courts may review the process through which it was developed to ensure this guarantee. Such a review may include the assurance that a fair public hearing was held and conflicts of interest were avoided, among other procedural considerations.”

He went on to define “precedent” as a “guide to decision-making based on earlier decision on matters similar in circumstances or in legal principles.”

In summary, Sahr said a municipality can minimize or avoid the potential for damages by ensuring its land use regulations do not exert disproportionate effects on individual developers or property owners, establish a connection between the conditions imposed and the perceived impacts of the development, and allow some economically viable use of the property.

In reviewing the general plan, he said land uses and zoning categories should ensure a reasonable array of uses.

Sahr also cautioned against making broad, general claims and statements without factual support, reminding them all comments made during the public hearing process are part of the public record.

Last, he said, “The use of subjective review criteria or decisions based upon arbitrary and unreasonable factors or decisions made without any substantial relation to the public health, safety and general welfare are problematic and may subject the town’s decision to adverse legal action on the part of a property owner.”

Photo: During last Thursday’s planning commission meeting, Senior Planner Larry Sahr told the commission it is a good idea to identify which of the established review criteria a proposal failed to demonstrate when making a recommendation to deny a special use permit.
Photo by Linda Bentley