Site Plan Review

Lindsley Hall

photo from American Library of Congress;
Photographs taken by George N. Barnard (1819-1902) in 1864
while serving as official photographer to Gen. W.T. Sherman. See Battle of Nashville web site.
When used properly, site plan review can be an important tool in the administration of zoning ordinances. Unfortunately, site plan review over the years, has been abused and stretched further than the concept should allow. When viewed properly, site plan review is simply a review of the manner in which the development is going to be laid out on-site. The idea is that the administrative body charged with this responsibility, usually the Planning Commission, may have insight into the process and may be able to suggest ways of improving the site design. This includes the means of ingress and egress.

However, what often happens is that the local board takes an expansive view of its powers and begins to consider whether the use of the property is appropriate at that particular site. That is not the province of site plan review. For example, if a fairly intense use of property is proposed at a heavily trafficked intersection, the members of the planning commission may think that the location is not a good one. They might be right; but, the use of the property is controlled by the zoning ordinance. It is not reviewable upon the submission of a site plan. If it were, the Planning Commission in effect would have the ability to override a decision of the local legislative body! Site plan review only considers the layout on the site; not the use of the site.

Another criteria that is often misapplied is traffic implications. As I have mentioned above, the means for traffic to get into and out of the property is within the purview of site plan review. However, the difficulties with off-site traffic simply are not. It is illegal for the Planning Commission to deny site plan approval because the off-site traffic will be adversely affected by the development. That is a zoning issue. It was considered (or should have been) by the local legislative body when the zoning was approved on that property. It is not for the Planning Commission to second-guess that decision. Site plan approval may not be denied because of off-site traffic problems.

In Tennessee, we have another problem. Although site plan review can be a very useful tool in the right setting, there is absolutely no enabling legislation authorizing site plan review in our state. There is a very real question as to whether site plan review is a legitimate planning tool without state authority to engage in it, specifying the means of such review, and the proper procedures for conducting site plan review. This interesting question has yet to be addressed by our courts.

This is especially significant in that there are a number of very important procedural safeguards built into the subdivision process, which is sometimes seen as a companion planning tool. Subdivision procedure has long been established in Tennessee, as in most other states. One of those protections is automatic approval of the subdivision if the Planning Commission has not acted on the application in 30 or 60 days (depending on whether it is municipal or regional). But becasue there is no enalbing legislation on site plans, the Planning Commission can stall forever with no adverse outcome. More importantly, generally speaking, a subdivision application will have much greater impact on the development of surrounding properties; so why does the site plan applicant have fewer procedural rights? Simple: there is no law allowing site plan review. The General Assembly has never said it can be done and therefore no protections were built into the process because the process itself has not been validated.

Tennessee should adopt site plan enabling legislation. The powers and duties of the local government can be specified, and the rights of the applicant can be clearly spelled out. In that way, each of the parties can be more fully informed of the proper parameters of site plan review.

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