Comprehensive Planning

IN BRIEF

"Trend Is Not Destiny" - Lewis Mumford, writer

Preparing a municipal plan provides an opportunity for a community’s residents and landowners to join together in an open dialogue about their shared future. The plan provides a structure to determine how the community will meet the future demand for services and public facilities, manage growth and ensure that residents have access to decent housing. It also articulates a vision of the future and the steps to achieving that vision. In Vermont, communities are strongly encouraged to plan for their future as a means of achieving state goals in an inclusive manner that respects – and builds upon – the strengths and resources of local communities.

THE ISSUE

Vermont municipalities are not required to plan, although there are benefits to adopting a municipal plan. Without one, a community can not adopt or amend land use regulations, adopt impact fees, or be eligible for certain state grant programs. If they choose to adopt a plan, communities are required to be comprehensive. State statute requires that a municipal plan include ten specific elementsthat address a range of topics. Consequently, Vermont communities benefit from this holistic approach that fosters an understanding of how various issues are connected, such as the relationship between land use and transportation.

The comprehensive nature of municipal plans in Vermont is central to their effectiveness for community decision making. By ensuring that local planners consider the interrelationship between land use, energy, housing, public facilities, transportation and other topics, it is hoped that the plan will set forth an implementation program that coordinates policies and programs so that the community is not working at cross purposes.

In addition to the required plan elements, municipalities are encouraged to consider state planning and development goals when preparing local plans. These goals, intended to guide public policy at all levels of government, address a broad range of topics including maintaining Vermont’s traditional settlement patterns, promoting housing options, protecting natural resources and fostering a strong and diverse economy. In many respects, the state planning and development goals reflect most smart growth principles. While there is no requirement that municipal plans conform to these goals, a community that opts not to seek conformation from the Regional Planning Commission is not eligible for certain grant programs.

Among the most important purposes of the municipal plan is creating a foundation for land use regulation. Under recent changes to state statute, it now a requirement that land use regulations be in conformance with the plan.  “Conformance with the plan” is defined in statute (§4403) as meaning: “a proposed implementation tool, including a bylaw or bylaw amendment that is in accord with the municipal plan in effect at the time of adoption, when the bylaw or bylaw amendment includes all the following:

  • Makes progress toward attaining, or at least does not interfere with, the goals and policies contained in the municipal plan
  •  Provides for proposed future land uses, densities, and intensities of development contained in the municipal plan.
  • Carries out, as applicable, any specific proposals for community facilities, or other proposed actions contained in the municipal plan.”

In addition to municipal land use regulations, under Act 250, the District Commission charged with reviewing applications must find that a proposed development “is in conformance with a duly adopted local or regional plan.” Act 250 case law has refined the meaning of conformance in this setting. Basically, a plan’s policies must be clear and unambiguous. By drafting clear land use plans and policies, Vermont communities can exercise a high degree of local control over state regulatory proceedings.

Communities that engage in an active municipal planning process typically go beyond the minimum statutory requirements. Some communities take the opportunity to articulate a clear vision for the future, and relate goals, policies and actions to achieving that vision. Some communities go beyond the minimum requirement for an implementation plan by laying out a detailed description of community strategies for achieving its goals, setting priorities, or a timeline, for the actions that the community will take, and assigning responsibility among municipal staff, boards, citizen groups and other organizations for completing those tasks.

The Tools

Elements of effective comprehensive planning include the preparation of a municipal plan that includes:

  • Sustainable Economic Development Policies
  • Community Vision
  • Detailed Implementation Plan
  • Clear Policies to Guide State Regulatory Programs

Related Case Studies