Can a City Deviate from Its Future Land Use Map

by Debbie

Visitor Question: I'm wondering about when it is acceptable (or even legal) for a city to deviate from its adopted future land use map, which appears in our comprehensive plan. It seems like there was a lot of public input and discussion, at least from the people who usually participate in civic affairs, at the time we were doing the comprehensive plan.

Then lo and behold, our city council wants to approve a big development that is nowhere to be found on that future land use map. In fact, the map shows all residential in that location, and single-family residential predominates. But the development now being proposed includes ground-floor commercial space underneath apartments, which is a far cry from what my neighbors and me expected when we went to meetings to make sure that our single-family home character is maintained.

So can the city just up and do something else? What are the criteria for approving a different type of development? Is this something that happens frequently, or is this behavior on the part of our city council out of bounds? My neighbors and me think it is.

Editors Reply: First we will answer your question literally, by saying that of course a city can deviate from its own future land use map. It's a bit like a parent or an organization choosing to ignore the rules they set up.

Now whether it is appropriate or even could be considered illegal depends on your state's laws about comprehensive planning and also the case law deriving from your state's courts. In a few states, the courts and local custom are very strict about following the letter of the future land use plan. In those locations it is typical to see a city or county council first amend the future land use plan before taking official action to either rezone a property or approve a specific development plan that would be contrary to the pre-existing future land use map.

In other states and legal environments, the future land use map is seen as advisory, and cities, counties, and townships violate their own plans at will. Someone may bring up the future land use map as an argument at a hearing, but then local governments consider that as one of the considerations but not the only one.

If we are asked what we think about this in a specific instance, we always advise that a planning commission and then a local governing body consider the question in the abstract first, trying their best to separate their opinions about a current proposal from the principles and policies they have been pursuing in regard to land use.

Then if the city cannot make a good argument to itself and its citizens about why the future land use map is wrong in light of today's circumstances, we always say they should reject the development proposal. But if your city is having a hard time attracting jobs, shopping, and needed development, this will be a tough fight to get the government to reject someone who has a legitimate proposal.

Another consideration is that your title and first paragraph speak of the future land use map. A good land use plan almost always includes a map as a communication tool, but the plan ideally should be broader than just a map. In other words, it should include discussion, goals, objectives, and policies. If the application of written policies means that a particular proposal is supported by the plan to some degree, then the future land use map may be seen by the local government and even by courts as only one among several factors in determining whether the development proposal in question conforms to the comprehensive plan.

In sum, we advise that any municipality or county contemplating the approval of a development that is contrary to a future land use map first hold public hearings and debate on a plan amendment. There is nothing shady about amending a part of the comprehensive plan; in that, doing so when conditions and priorities change is what keeps a master plan for a community alive and relevant.

If you are a neighbor of the proposed development though, you are well within your rights to complain loudly that the city is ignoring its own plan and to demand that it acknowledge and address the seriousness of violating its own plan. If their legislative judgment is that the future land use map does not fit today's conditions, make them justify that to you, and in the process, you and your neighbors can call attention to the fact that the city appears to be caving into political or financial pressure.

If the city chooses to go through the correct sequence of events and move first to consider amending its land use plan, make sure that you and your neighbors are there to explain to your elected representatives why you think this is the wrong move in the abstract. During any public hearing on this topic, don't even mention the current development proposal because you want to force them to be similarly focused on the abstract argument of why a plan amendment is or is not appropriate public policy.

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