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The Comprehensive Plan

In the planning literature, one sees the terms comprehensive plan, general plan, and master plan used synonymously. At present, the term comprehensive plan is in most common use and will be used here for all three. It refers to the most basic plan prepared to guide the development of the community. One characteristic of the comprehensive plan is that physically, it covers the entire community. Another defining characteristic is that it is long term. Comprehensive plans typically have time horizons in the range of 20 years. Recall from Chapter 5 that having a plan may be optional or may be required by the state.

THE GOALS OF COMPREHENSIVE PLANNING

Since municipalities differ, the following list of goals will not be complete; nor will every item necessarily apply to every community. Because the goals overlap, another writer might list them differently yet cover the same ground. Note that all the following goals, with the possible exception of the last, readily fit within the rubric of the phrase health, safety, and public welfare, cited earlier in connection with the police power. [1]

contaminating well water. It may involve separating industrial or commercial activities that produce health hazards from residential areas. It may mean banning certain types of industrial operations from the community entirely.

  • 2. Public safety. This goal may manifest itself in numerous ways. It may mean requiring sufficient road width in new subdivisions to ensure that ambulances and fire equipment have adequate access in emergencies. Many communities have flood plain zoning to keep people from building in flood-prone areas. At the neighborhood level it may mean planning for a street geometry that permits children to walk from home to school without crossing a major thoroughfare. In a high-crime area it may mean laying out patterns of buildings and spaces that provide fewer sites where muggings and robberies can be committed unobserved.
  • 3. Circulation. Providing the community with adequate circulation is an almost universal goal of comprehensive planning. This means a system of streets and perhaps also parking facilities that make possible an orderly, efficient, and rapid flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. In a municipality in which there is serious flood or storm hazard planning the circulation system may include planning for rapid evacuation, perhaps by planning the system so that inbound lanes can quickly be converted to outbound lanes. In many communities it also means providing for adequate public transportation. Planning for transportation and planning for land use are intimately connected, as is discussed in detail in Chapter 12.
  • 4. Provision of services and facilities. An important part of most comprehensive planning efforts is determining the location of facilities such as parks, recreation areas, schools, social services, hospitals, and the like. In addition to planning for facilities, it is also important to plan for a pattern of land use that facilitates the provision of public services like police and fire protection, water, and sewers. For example, the pattern of land use will affect the feasibility and cost of providing public water and sewer facilities. The location of housing relative to the location of schools will determine whether children can walk or must be bused to school.
  • 5. Fiscal health. There is a relationship between the pattern of development and the fiscal situation of the community. Any development will impose some costs upon the community (fire protection, police protection, traffic, education, etc.). Similarly, virtually any development will generate some revenues for the municipality (property taxes, sales taxes, user charges, and other fees of one sort or another). Some uses will yield surpluses, and others deficits. Generally speaking, it is not very difficult to predict which uses will do which. In fact, a substantial literature has existed on fiscal impact for several decades.2 Many communities will plan for a
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pattern of land use that will hold down property taxes. But there are limits here. Does the community have the right to practice "fiscal zoning"—using its land-use controls to keep out types of housing or economic activity that are likely to cost the community more for additional services than they yield in additional revenue? How much can a community limit the building of multi-family and small-lot single-family housing to control costs? Is it acceptable for a community to use its land-use controls to allow multifamily housing for senior citizens (who impose no burden on the school system) while rejecting physically comparable housing for a younger population that may impose more costs than the additional taxes that it will pay? The courts have not spoken with total unanimity on these matters, and many an attorney has earned a comfortable living litigating such points.

  • 6. Economic goals. In thousands of communities, economic growth or maintenance of the existing level of economic activity is an important goal. There is a link here with the fiscal goal, but there may be other motivations as well, most notably providing employment for community residents. Thus a community may seek to develop a pattern of land use that provides for commercial and industrial sites, provides good access to such sites, and facilitates supplying utilities to such sites. Other steps that a municipality may take to stimulate its own economic development are discussed in Chapter 13.
  • 7. Environmental protection. This goal is an old one but, as noted in Chapter 15, has become much more common since the 1960s. It may involve restrictions on building in wetlands, steep slopes, or other ecologically valuable or fragile lands. It may involve preservation of open space, ordinances to control discharges into water bodies, prohibition or limitations on commercial or industrial activities that would degrade air quality, and so on. In recent years, many municipalities have also come to see a need to do what they can to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions, an attitude exemplified by the phrase "think globally, act locally."
  • 8. Redistributive goals. Some planners of the political left would argue that a goal of planning should be to distribute downward both wealth and influence in the political process. In a limited number of communities, planners have been able to bend the planning process in that direction. For an account of a few such instances, see the book by Pierre Clavel cited in Chapter 7.3

  • [1] Health. Achieving a pattern of land use that protects the publichealth is a well-established planning goal. One aspect may be prohibitingdensities of development that threaten to overload water or sewer facilities. In areas that do not have public water and sewer facilities, it may meanspacing houses far enough apart to prevent leakage from septic tanks from
 
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