Site Plan Review 101

By Sally Elmiger, AICP, LEED-APThis article first appeared in the Michigan Association of Planning (MAP) magazine. MAP, the Michigan Chapter of the American Planning Association is a 501(c3) non-profit organization with offices in Ann Arbor and Detroit. MAP provides education, information, and advocacy that promotes effective planning decision-making and practice. MAP is a statewide organization with a majority membership of local and appointed officials.To read the whole article, Site Plan Review 101, from the January/February 2015 issue of the Michigan Planner magazine, click here.For more information about the Michigan Chapter of the American Planning Association (Michigan Association of Planning-MAP), click here.IFThe construction industry is recovering from the great recession and Michigan communities are starting to receive more and more site plans for development proposals. Some of these projects are starting from the ground up and the site plan package can be large and complex. Where does one find the uninterrupted time to look at and digest all of the intricacies of a project, much less identify elements that are not consistent with the zoning ordinance?This article offers a system for reviewing a site plan submittal. It organizes the various elements of a development proposal, and directs the reviewer where to look for information. Having a system to follow also ensures that the critical elements – those particularly related to health and safety – are evaluated thoroughly.General Organization of a Site Plan Package While some zoning ordinances specify how plan sets are organized, most simply list the required information and leave it up to the applicant to organize the material. In actuality, engineers, landscape architects, and others who prepare site plans follow standard practices about the order of plan sheets. Plans are assembled in the general sequence in which they will be used to build the project. Even though many of the site plan sheets aren’t used in construction documents, the site plan package follows the same order. Knowing this order makes it easier to find the information relevant to a particular zoning requirement.The graphic and description below illustrate how sheets in a site plan package are usually arranged, and the contents of each sheet:site plan review

  • Cover Sheet: The cover or title sheet provides the identification and location information for the project. It provides the project title and identifies the owner, developer, and any other interested parties. It also shows a regional map locating the subject site in the community. It lists the sheets in the plan package, and contains the seal of the professional who prepared the documents.
  • Existing Conditions Sheet: This sheet provides an official survey of the existing conditions of the parcel. It shows and labels the property lines, benchmarks, topographic survey, existing natural features such as wetlands, streams, trees and vegetation, existing buildings, pavement, fences and other human-made features. All the remaining sheets will use the survey as a base, and draft the site plan on this information.
  • Demolition Plan Sheet: All existing elements to be removed or demolished are shown on this sheet. If the property is to be cleared, this sheet will show which trees are to be removed, and any buildings, pavement, or other features that will be demolished to make way for the new project. This sheet also identifies which items (including vegetation) that are to remain.
  • Layout and Dimension Sheet: This sheet shows the proposed project laid out on top of the topographic survey (base information) of the property. This is the heart of the site plan package, and shows what the developer is proposing, and how it fits the site. The sheet should show and label all the above-ground features the developer wants to build, and include dimensions of site improvements such as roads, parking lots and sidewalks.
  • Grading Plan Sheet: This sheet shows both the existing (base information) and proposed topography on the site.   The existing topographic lines are illustrated as thin lines. The proposed topographic lines, which illustrate the extent of grading needed to build the project, are shown as thick lines.
  • Site Utilities Sheet: Existing and proposed utility lines and how they interact with the proposed structures are shown on this sheet. Both above-ground and underground utility structures are shown.   As with the layout and grading plans, this sheet is drafted on the base information.
  • Landscape Plan Sheet: The landscape plan shows the location, number and type of plant materials proposed for the project, and any special landscape treatments such as tree wells or retaining walls.
  • Detail Sheets: Details regarding the site layout, utilities, and landscaping are provided at the end of the package. Examples include pavement cross sections, utility line profiles and elevations, soil erosion control methods, trash container fencing/screen, retaining wall construction and planting details.

 Site Plan Review SystemThe site plan review system discussed here somewhat follows the order of sheets in a plan set. This system is a practical approach that that can be completed in a few hours, and which results in an understanding of the project and how well it meets the ordinance. That said, the actual amount of time needed to conduct a review depends on the complexity of the project, and the level of understanding needed by the reviewer. Most plans require three to four uninterrupted hours to review.Step 1.  Know and understand the zoning ordinance thoroughly. Knowing the zoning ordinance, the reviewer knows what to look for and can spot features of a plan that meet or don’t meet the ordinance quickly.Step 2.  Have a standard “site plan review form” or checklist to complete for each site plan.   The form should start with the big-picture items, and end with the details. Another approach is to create a checklist of the information required by the site plan review section of the zoning ordinance. Then the reviewer can go through the checklist to review the plan. The list below includes the topics that could be included on a general site plan review form. Additional categories could be added, such as special land use criteria, as needed.

  • Identification information, including name of project and applicant, request, and zoning district of subject site
  • Project and site description, summarizing what the applicant wants to build
  • Area, width, height, and setback requirements
  • Natural resources, including topography, woodlands and trees, wetlands and water courses, and soils
  • Building location and site arrangement
  • Parking and loading
  • Site access and circulation
  • Safety paths/sidewalks/pedestrian amenities
  • Utilities, including stormwater management
  • Landscaping, lighting and signs
  • Floor plans and elevations

 Step 3.  Thoroughly read through the submitted information before comparing it to the zoning ordinance. While this is time consuming, reading all the materials and studying the site plan sheets before attempting to draw any conclusions will give the reviewer a clear understanding of the proposal. Take notes while reading the plans and list items that should be checked against the zoning ordinance or are of potential concern. Include a page or sheet reference next to each note of where the information can be found on the site plan.Step 4.  Work through the site plan review form or checklist. Complete the form or checklist, starting by listing the identifying information and summarizing the project scope. Then, for each category on the review form, look up the zoning ordinance requirements for that category, and assess how the proposal either meets or doesn’t meet the requirements. At the end of each category on the form, summarize the issues that don’t meet the requirements. After completing the entire form, list the items that don’t meet the requirements together at the end of the form. This is a summary of the entire review. This list will provide direction about whether the plans are ready to be considered by the planning commission, or if the plans are deficient and additional information needs to be provided before moving forward.Site Plan Review TipsWork at a conference table rather than your desk. It provides room to spread out and a quiet place to concentrate away from a ringing phone.Start the review at least a week before it is due. Reviewing plans often leads to questions that require follow up with the municipal engineer or others before a conclusion about the issue can be reached.If possible, visit the site with the site plan in hand, visualizing how the proposal will work within the constraints of the property. Or, use the Internet to view an aerial of the site. Google Maps or Bing Maps make aerials easily available, while some county planning departments also have aerials available on-line.Expect a lot of back and forth. As you go through the review form, you’ll notice things in both the plans and the zoning ordinance that you missed earlier. Expect to re-visit your assessment of each category numerous times as you work through the review form.