Where do communities most often get into legal trouble? Zoning enforcement. Yet decision makers often fail to designate a person whose primary job is that of zoning administrator, or they expect a planning director or building official to play that role.
At the Michigan Association of Planning conference in November, CWA’s John Enos spoke on the responsibilities and duties of the planner, planning commission and zoning administrator in the zoning enforcement process.
The primary purpose of a community’s zoning ordinance is to implement the goals, objectives and visions of its master plan. However, no matter how eloquent the master plan or concise the zoning ordinance, a community will never develop as envisioned if it fails to consistently enforce its ordinance. Zoning enforcement is necessary in order to:
- Achieve the goals, objectives and visions of the master plan;
- Catch violations before they become too hard to fix;
- Create a culture of voluntary compliance, and;
- Create an attractive community with high property values and a high quality of life.
The ultimate purpose of zoning enforcement is to eliminate the nuisance and ensure ordinance compliance, not to collect a fine or punish the violator. Ideally, the responsibility of zoning enforcement and nuisance abatement should lie in the hands of one zoning enforcement official (usually called the zoning administrator). Unfortunately, in many communities, the planning commission takes it upon themselves to enforce the ordinance. While planning commissions are familiar with the zoning ordinance, this method may result in inefficient meetings where noxious weeds and blight are discussed rather than future land use. In other communities, the building inspector takes responsibility for zoning enforcement. Because a building inspector already has a long list of tasks, adding zoning enforcement to that list may overextend his or her duties. An overworked building inspector may not catch all zoning violations, thus lowering the priority and effectiveness of zoning enforcement.
The zoning administrator sits at the nexus of all land and building issues. He or she
- Is familiar with the zoning ordinance;
- Issues original land use permits and is familiar with site plans, conditions and variances, and
- Has continuous contact with the planning commission, legislative body and zoning board of appeals .
He/she also needs to know other relevant regulations, including construction and building codes, health and sanitary codes, MDEQ regulations and county and municipal road regulations. With this knowledge, a zoning administrator can keep an eye open for potential building or environmental violations and report them to the appropriate agency, killing two birds with one stone. A zoning administrator can obtain this knowledge by attending educational sessions or cross-training sessions between various officials/agencies.
A community with a well-enforced ordinance is better positioned to achieve the goals and visions of its master plan. In addition, a well-enforced ordinance is easy to defend in court, encourages voluntary compliance, and maintains property values and quality of life. By designating the zoning administrator as the primary zoning enforcement official, a community can take the first step towards establishing an efficient and streamlined zoning enforcement process.