Comprehensive Plan Updates: Do You Know What Your City Has in Mind for Your Property?
Every ten years, cities and townships located in Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Scott, Washington, Anoka and Carver Counties must update their comprehensive plans. Cities and townships are currently working on their latest updates, which must be submitted to the Metropolitan Council for approval by the end of 2018. A comprehensive plan is the tool that local governments use to steer growth and change in a community, and it addresses topics including land use, housing, transportation, and redevelopment.
In the land use context, the comprehensive plan identifies a general land use category for a specific property—such as residential, commercial or industrial—while it is the city’s zoning ordinance that implements those categories with more detailed designations and regulations. Zoning ordinances are often thought of as the most important set of regulations for the property owner who is looking to develop a piece of land, but a comprehensive plan can significantly impact the use of a property, oftentimes without the knowledge of the owner.
Experienced real estate investors and developers understand that a city cannot alter the zoning for a piece of property without providing the owner with notice of the proposed change and an opportunity to be heard by the city council or planning commission. In contrast, no property-specific notice is required for a comprehensive plan change. A city must provide general notice of intent to amend its comprehensive plan, but that notice need only appear in a legal newspaper, and it typically will not provide any detail about proposed changes. As a result, it frequently occurs that a property owner learns only after the fact the comprehensive plan “guiding” for a particular property was changed.
Comprehensive plan changes can be particularly significant for owners of undeveloped land. For example, an investor may purchase vacant land next to a growing residential area that is also zoned residential, with a plan for single-family development once housing demand reaches a certain level. During a comprehensive plan update process, the city’s planning staff may conclude that the investor’s land is better suited for a use other than residential and propose that it be guided for commercial or light industrial uses. That proposed change could be considered and approved without the property owner receiving any notice. And if that happens, the owner now faces an additional barrier—and expense—in attempting to carry out his or her original plan for the land, as it would now be necessary to seek an amendment to the comprehensive plan. Courts give considerable deference to local comprehensive planning, so this may well be an uphill battle.
If you already own land that you may want to develop or redevelop in the future, now is the time to check in on your city or township’s comprehensive plan updating process. And if you are in the market for development property, now or in the future, it is important to review not only the local zoning ordinance, but also the community’s comprehensive plan, as that may give you valuable insight into the community vision for the property, behind just its current zoning.