The Roles of a Planning Commission in Subdivision Regulation
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- [Neal] Hi, I'm Neal Fogle, and I'm a Penn State Extension Economic and Community Development Educator.
I'd like to share some information about planning commissions in Pennsylvania and the role they can play in subdivision and land development regulation.
Planning commissions in Pennsylvania have many task and responsibilities that they can undertake.
In doing so, they have an impact on future growth and development.
One of the most commonly practiced task is that of fulfilling the roles involved with regulating the subdivision and development of land.
The regulation of land subdivision and development is accomplished by a subdivision and land development ordinance, also known as a SALDO.
In order to provide an overview of the roles that a planning commission can play in SALDO regulation, I'll first cover the purpose for such regulations as well as the enabling legislation that provides a basis for it.
I'll then look at some of the items that make up the content of a SALDO.
I'll conclude with the processes and task that relate to the implementation and administration of the ordinance contents.
The purpose of a SALDO is to promote and direct well-planned, properly designed, and thoroughly coordinated community development.
A SALDO also provides a means of assurance that development improvements, such as roads, are completed in a timely manner.
Pennsylvania municipalities are not mandated to have subdivision and land ordinances, but there's a Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code, which is also referred to as a planning code.
They're enabled to create, adopt, and enforce them if they so desire.
The planning code applies to almost all local municipalities and counties in Pennsylvania.
However, there are a few exceptions.
The cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and the county of Philadelphia, are under different statutes.
A planning agency has the power to prepare, recommend, and administer subdivision and land development regulations.
Planners must be aware that this is only upon the request of the governing body.
Subdivision and land development can be regulated at one of two levels, either by the local municipality itself or through the county.
If a local municipality has its own adopted ordinance, it takes precedence over the county ordinance if one is in place.
If the local municipality does not have an ordinance, but the county does, the county ordinance is then in effect.
If neither the local municipality nor the county has an ordinance, subdivision and land development activity is unregulated.
The SALDO is the most commonly-used land use ordinance in Pennsylvania.
90% of the municipalities in the state either regulate the subdivision of land or are covered by county ordinance, and just over half of the municipalities have enacted their own ordinance.
Around 1,000 rely on a county-level ordinance.
SALDOs contain numerous components.
Some of the primary contents of an ordinance are definitions and development and design standards.
Other important components are requirements related to processes and timeframes.
These are associated with the application review and approval process, as well as improvement completion.
SALDOs include specific definitions that clarify what types of development improvements and activities are actually under the jurisdiction of the municipality.
In order to regulate subdivision activity, it's necessary to define and understand what a subdivision is.
A subdivision involves dividing a parcel into two or more lots.
This applies whether the subdivision is proposed for immediate or future use.
The other activity under the jurisdiction of a SALDO is that of land development.
When defining land development, ordinances must include a number of land activities, including the improvement of a single lot with a non-residential building.
An example would be a grocery store.
Another activity defined as land development is the improvement of a single lot or adjoining multiple lots with two or more residential buildings.
An example would be apartment buildings.
Land development also includes two or more non-residential buildings or the division of space among two or more occupants.
An example would be a strip mall.
There are additional definition features, as well as exceptions, that are to be included in the ordinance, as per the planning code.
SALDOs can include standards by which they can direct the design and layout of various development components.
One such standard would regulate lot line placement for the formation of lots.
If there is no zoning ordinance in place for the municipality, a subdivision and land development ordinance can also have standards for minimum lot size and setback lines, but these need to be based upon the existence or non-existence of public water and sewer.
The ordinance can also have standards for improvement such as streets, sidewalks, and stormwater facilities, and erosion and sedimentation controls.
In the case of streets, requirements can address items such as right-of-way width, to make sure that adequate space is retained for current and expected future roadway improvements, slope, to address accessibility for all applicable types of vehicles, and curves, to assure that speeds do not exceed the ability to safely navigate turns.
Street standards also can include items such as cartway and shoulder width, to provide appropriate width to maintain traffic flow.
Another example of a standard is the amount and type of construction materials to make sure the roadway is put in according to acceptable engineering standards, and that it will have a long lifespan with minimal maintenance.
Right-of-way and easement standards can also be included in the ordinance for the operation and maintenance of activities other than vehicular transportation.
These can include items such as walkways, utilities, and drainage.
Ordinances also contain additional requirements that are meant to make sure that proposed lots where land being developed can accommodate the intended use.
This includes documentation that there is adequate means for water, either public or private, and sewer, either public or private.
Ordinances can also contain requirements relative to the provision of new recreational lands and facilities.
One of the important components of a SALDO relates to specific processes associated with the application review process.
One example of a process specified by the planning code is a preliminary and final application process for developments that will be required to complete site improvements.
A preliminary plan can give approval for the site design and allow the developer to begin the construction on required improvements or obtain a financial security that will guarantee the improvements will be completed.
There is also an allowance for inspection of the improvements.
Another important component is the knowledge of and compliance with specific timeframes associated with the application review process.
Planners need to keep their eye on the calendar.
One example of an established timeframe is a mandated 90-day maximum for a decision on a preliminary or final application.
There are a number of provisions that relate to this 90-day period, and a planning commission should make itself aware of them.
A planning commission can serve one of two primary overall functions in regard to subdivision and land development applications under their adopted ordinance.
At the discretion of the governing body, the planning commission can either have a review or approval role in the application process.
If the governing body wishes to delegate authority to the planning commission to make final decisions on plan approval or denial, it can do so if designated in the ordinance, or, the governing body could retain this decision-making authority, in which case the planning commission would serve as a review and recommending agency.
Local officials must realize that even when they have their own ordinance, the county planning agency still has a mandated role.
When locally empowered with their own ordinance, municipalities must provide SALDO applications to the county planning agency, and allow a 30-day period for review and comment.
Planning commission members should be well versed in the planning code and the applicable timeframes and processes.
They also should be aware of their ordinance contents and their relationship to other municipal plans and ordinances, such as comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances.
They should also know what agency should be contacted for aspects of plan review, and make sure that materials are distributed.
Planning commission members don't have to feel that they need to be the review experts in all the design standards of the ordinance.
The planning code does provide provision for the municipality to utilize professional consultants, such as an engineer, for plan review.
Municipal consultant reviews can play a big role in plan review and provide part of the basis for the recommendations or actions of the planning commission.
Review fees can be passed on to the applicant, providing the governing body properly adopts a fee schedule by ordinance or resolution.
It's important for planning commission members to keep up with legislative changes, court decisions, and good planning practice.
This can be done through memberships with planning and/or governmental associations, review of publications or web materials, and attending and participating in applicable training.
Planning commission's role can go beyond reviewing or taking action on actual subdivision or land development applications.
The need for updates to the subdivision and land development ordinance can be continually observed.
This can be conducted in part by field observation and evaluation of past development that has been approved by the board.
Consider questions such as, is it functioning properly?
Is it well-coordinated?
Is it fulfilling municipal goals?
It's also a good practice to monitor the effectiveness and efficiency of the planning commission when it comes to staying within the mandated timeframes for actions, as well as internal and external communication and consistency and quality of plans being approved.
The role of the planning commission in subdivision and land development regulation is an important one.
The ordinance standards chosen, and the administration and enforcement of those standards, will set the direction for future development design and community impact.