General Plan Series #3
By Don Hadder
In common discussions about land use policies and regulations, it is common to hear the terms “land use plan” and “zoning” interchanged. This is not a correct use of the terms and can lead to misconceptions about approvals and processes that involve these terms. These are distinct terms that have a relationship with each other but also have different meanings and purposes.
In the State of Arizona statutes that govern municipal planning, the General Plan Land Use plan is a set of “objectives, principles and standards” that may include “maps, charts, graphs and text.” In the same section, there is a definition of “Zoning Ordinance” that defines it as “a municipal ordinance regulating the use of land or structures, or both.” Typically, a zoning ordinance has two main components: the ordinance language and a zoning map. Within the ordinance language there are provisions that focus principally on the types of land uses allowed as well as the physical parameters and limits of the structures and improvements that contain the used allowed.
The Land Use plan within the General Plan is a general guide for the arrangement of the types and broad range of intensity of land uses as projected to a future date – often 15 to 30 years into the future. For most cities, such a plan has a limited number of land use categories. Scottsdale’s 2001 General Plan Land Use Map includes 11 land use categories: 3 are primarily for residential uses, 4 are focused on types of business uses, 2 are for open space uses, 1 is for mixed-use areas and the last is for municipal and civic uses. All general plan components are approved through a resolution, which is an official statement of city policy and practice.
The Zoning Ordinance in Scottsdale is a highly complex set of regulations, processes and limitations. It is divided into 11 main chapters or sections covering various subjects from the zoning districts to general provisions to landscaping, and more. Within the districts, there are 15 that are primarily for residential and supportive land uses, 13 districts for various types of business uses, 2 for primarily open space uses, 5 mixed-use districts, 5 specialty use districts and 7 overlay districts that are combined with the other districts. Clearly there is not a one-to-one relationship between the Land Use plan land use categories and the zoning districts. The zoning ordinance also includes the Zoning Map, which specifically applies the zoning districts to properties across the city.
Under the State statutes, all zoning “shall be consistent with and conform to the adopted general plan of the municipality.” The determination of this is done through the evaluation of each rezoning case and established through the City Council approval of the rezoning case, including the stipulations that are applied – which become an extension of the Zoning Ordinance as well. With each rezoning case there may be a determination that it constitutes a change in the Land Use plan designation. If the proposal is deemed to be a change in the designation, there will need to be a parallel General Plan case. As defined in the General Plan, if this rises to the level of being a “Major Amendment” of the General Plan, it can be heard only once a year and requires a higher threshold of approval.
Both the general plan and zoning ordinances are documents that are expected to change as the community ages, grows, economic conditions evolve and the aspirations of the community change. Not allowing for any change would be a violation of the intent and sense of fairness built into the enabling statutes as well as the long-term traditions of planning and zoning, both locally and across the nation.
Another aspect of these provisions that often becomes confused focuses on what a “variance” is. Under the State statues and embodied within the Zoning Ordinance, a variance is a very specific and limited term. All variances under these laws are reviewed for consideration and determination by a Board of Adjustment. The action of the Board of Adjustment is limited to specific properties under limited criteria and is a quasi-judicial action – not a legislative action. The City Council has no role in the variance process. Unfortunately, there often are general comments that describe a rezoning case (which is a legislative action) as a ‘variance’. It is not. A rezoning case is an action to adjust the established policy regarding land use types and intensity on a property and is not a ‘breaking of the rules’. It is applying new rules to the property. A variance is an exception to the rules where it has been determined the rules are not fair and reasonable.
In reviewing and understanding the General Plan, it is important to understand what it is and what it is not. Believing the General Plan has power that it really does not have can lead to controversies that are not valid and over time causes the completeness and breadth of the plan to be overlooked. It can and should be a powerful statement of the hopes, aspirations, priorities and values of the community for its future.
Don Hadder is a former Scottsdale City Planner.