Tips For Success With Municipal Site Plan Review - An Insider's Perspective

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As a developer, retailer or business owner who wishes to develop a property site, you are constantly dealing with such challenges as urban sprawl, the aging of suburbs and the rise of "in fill" development. You must also adapt to things like increased competition in the marketplace and the evolving ways in which consumers shop, dine and seek entertainment. Despite all of these challenges, you finally find the perfect piece of property on which to do business. Whether or not your company has done business within this municipality before, you are left with the daunting task of convincing the local government's planners, elected and appointed officials to approve your first-of-its-kind project in their community. What can you do to maximize your chances of approval throughout the site plan review process? Here are a few tips, from an insider's perspective:

Know Your Venue

Many considerations go into selecting a site for development and construction. When considering a location for your project, consider the municipality's master plan and zoning ordinances. Once you have a feel for the master plan and the community's history regarding development, you can better begin to craft your approach toward obtaining site plan approval. Speak with city planners, review ordinances and talk to business owners throughout the community. If there exist no pylon signs greater than 12' in height throughout the community, do not be surprised when your request for such a sign is abruptly denied.

Also, know your audience when you begin the site plan approval process. Elected and appointed officials come from diverse occupational backgrounds. Tailor your presentations to these board members according to their level of knowledge when discussing complicated topics related to construction or land use.

Make Your Vision "Visible"

You have invested countless hours and money trying to make your vision a reality. Successful developers are best at bringing their vision to life, even before construction has begun. A simple set of blueprints is not enough, especially if you are dealing with an appointed official who has little or no experience in construction.

Use brightly colored photographs, diagrams and models to help the officials wrestle with their ultimate question: Will this project become a permanent improvement in my community? Municipal officials are asked to serve as the gatekeepers to development, on behalf of the community and its residents. These officials take that responsibility very seriously and only desire to approve projects that will stand the test of time.

Recently, an auto dealership requested permission from the Zoning Board of Appeals on which I sit to renovate the aging facility and replace all signage used outside the building. During the first public hearing on the issue, a representative from the sign company contracted to construct and install the signs provided the board members with color drawings of what each sign would look like, individually. The board members had an incredibly difficult time imagining what the finished product would look like. The president of the dealership and the sign company representative listened to the board members' comments and, at the second public hearing, presented the board with photographs of the existing dealership, with images of the proposed signs superimposed, to give the board members a bird's eye view of what the proposal would look like if the board granted a variance for a number of wall signs in excess of what the ordinance allowed. This creativity, along with a sincere desire to work with the municipal officials, convinced the board to grant the variance.

Compare Your Project with Similar Projects

Tell us about similar retail properties you have constructed in other communities, whether it is a neighboring community or a community of comparable size and location in another state. Do not tell us that your plan should be approved because our community's ordinances are more restrictive than neighboring communities. We probably have our reasons for these more stringent standards. Yet, we do want to know how your project compares with similar projects because it helps us analyze the reasonableness of your request. It impresses us when we hear that you propose to build the "state of the art" building model for your retail property, for example.

If you propose to build the first business of its kind in Michigan, tell us about your previously constructed property in Illinois. It is helpful to analyze our concerns when we are presented with empirical evidence about your other properties, like hours of operation, parking needs, traffic impact, etc. If your property compares "apples to apples" to another store, we can reference this information to better discuss your site plan and any requests for variances from the zoning ordinances.

Reach Out to Neighboring Residents

Every developer, project manager or business owner who appears at a public hearing regarding site plan approval will boast that he or she is willing to work with residents. Knowledgeable developers who are the most persuasive met with neighboring property owners, residents and community groups before the first public hearing to review the site plan and to discuss things like what impact will there be on traffic if the development is approved. Do not let the first public hearing on your site plan approval process be the first time that you have spoken with neighboring property owners about your proposal. Only after you have spoken with these neighboring residents and community groups can you tell us, in earnest, why your proposal is fair in light of any of the concerns that those neighbors might have. Also, these groups often voice legitimate concerns, which can lead to changes in the proposed site plan that, over time, prove to be considerable improvements.

There is no one method to seeking site plan approval or a zoning variance which will guarantee your success. Proposals for development sometimes descend into contentious public debates in which factions of the community develop passionate opinions for and against the proposal. Elected and appointed officials are asked to make decisions, sometimes very difficult decisions, about whether that development should become a reality and if so, what will the development look like. Above all else, remember that these officials are simply citizens whose ultimate desire is to make their community the best it can be. By recognizing that fundamental principle, you will be in the best position possible to make your development a success.

Matt Henzi is a shareholder with Sullivan, Ward, Asher & Patton, P.C., a full service law firm in Southfield, Michigan. Matt has been a member of the Livonia, Michigan Zoning Board of Appeals since December, 2003 and has served as the Board's Chairman since 2006.