Working with government agencies
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One of the keys of any development anywhere is to get approval from the appropriate powers that regulate zoning and construction permitting. Unless someone in your locality has already done a Cohousing project or other type of intentional community, the local planning department may have problems understanding what you are doing.
Many intentional communities have avoided dealing with permits, zoning and other such local ordinances. Some have successfully operated for a number of years without problems, others have been shut down, red tagged, and had their property made uninhabitable by harassment by local officials. The best advice when you break the rules, is to know the rules well, so you know what your risk is, and what the details that you need to worry about are. One big draw back to getting caught in violation of zoning and building laws is that the local officials may not trust you and therefore they will scrutinize everything you do under the bureaucratic microscope.
If your project is the first time the local agency has heard of Cohousing, of coops, or whatever you are, spend some effort to evangelize the idea. Many groups hire a professional planner or project coordinator to deal with the agencies involved. Be smart about how you approach agency people and don't ever threaten or yell at them. Getting on the "bad side" of local officials can really cause problems.
Find out who can override decisions from lower level employees and lobby those people carefully. The more you can do to sell your project to the local planners, public agencies, etc., the better off you will be. Many of them will be unfamiliar with community and you should educated them with simple, one page materials that lay out the advantages for the agency to this kind of development. If you have the director of the planning department on your side, it makes everyone else down the line on your side. It is much harder, but not impossible to go from the lower levels up.
Have someone from your group attend city or county council meetings, planning commission or other local meetings to find out who the decision people are. Visit your local county permitting agency and pick up whatever literature you can find. The people you want to know are the heads of the permitting agencies, the names of the important staff members, and what the review process is for developments. Inquire about zoning codes, drainfield requirements and exemptions. Being in the loop for changes to code requirements can save you money. If you are at the stage where you are looking for land, try and set up a meeting with the local planner if there is one, and tell them what you want to do, and why. An hour of this persons time can save you thousands of dollars of mistakes and give you real concrete ideas about what it takes to do real estate development in your area. Don't be discouraged if it seems impossibly expensive and epic. You are continuing to discover it's going to take commitment to do this.
States and Counties regulate land use through zoning. Land is grouped together that has similar uses and characteristics. Often zoning issues in urban areas are defined by some sort of master development plan. Understanding the master plan will help you evaluate your rezone prospects.
Some areas, especially rural ones, have very lax rules about how many homes you can place on an acre, and other such requirements. Other areas have very stringent requirements and running afoul of these can cause you endless problems.
There is a usually a process for changing the zoning of a particular piece of land. Changing zoning usually involves significant paperwork and often a hearing that may or may not be public. There may be a stiff fee just for the rezone application process. If you need to change the zoning of a piece of land you should consult a professional planner to find out what is entailed for your location. If you have to rezone, find out if there have other similar rezones in the area. Often developers who are doing housing in your area may have an inside track to the planning process. Hiring a successful local developer as consultants with your rezone can save you a lot of time and money. A successful developer will know the players, and what it takes to accomplish a rezone on a given piece of property - that is why they are successful.
It is usually easier to change zoning if adjacent land has the same zoning or similar zoning to what you seek. Sometimes other site amenities such as leaving a large greenbelt and putting less houses on the site than are allowed can help the planning personnel view the project favorably.
If you go for a rezone, do some homework. How many rezones have been done in the last year and what type. Look for one similar to what you want to do. Spend some time at the planning department getting information. If someone is particularly helpful send them a thank you card, or even better yet, a dozen roses. Later these folks will remember you and could be in a position to do nice things. The folks in most planning department seldom ever hear thank you and they appreciate it.
If there are few or no rezones in the area, it may be an indication that rezones are not very easy and you might want to reconsider your plans. Again, check with a local developer or friendly agency person.
Hire a developer/contractor who has successfully rezoned property in your area to give you guidance and advice. A savvy local developer is successful because they know the system and this information is worth paying for. Sometimes the price a steak dinner and a couple of beers can get you information that will save you thousands of dollars. Some of the best advice can just be as simple as identifying the people in the planning department NOT to talk to.
Public hearings can be a nasty surprise, or a strengthening for your position depending on what the neighbors think. How your neighbors think of your project is up to you to define. People are often suspicious of strangers. It is harder for someone to dislike you if they have shaken your hand or had dinner with you. If you have to have a public hearing, don't be a stranger! Get out and talk to the neighbors first. This is a good idea even if you don't have to go through the public hearing process. You will be living next door to these people for a long time. Make an effort to build a positive relationship.
Look at your development through the neighbors eyes. The development may increase traffic, number of kids, and may cause parking problems or tax re-evaluations. You are probably different from these people and this makes you stand out. All these things are legitimate concerns. Think about them and how you can mitigate them. Brainstorm a list of benefits to the surrounding neighbors and then consider holding a neighborhood area meeting to talk about it. Sometimes it may be better just to quietly go about your own business. It depends on how activist your neighbors are, or might become. Its better to give them real information than let them imagine their worse fears and project on you at a public hearing.
Several groups hold "block parties" in which they invite all the local neighbors over for some food and play. The better you know your neighbors, and the better they know you, the stronger your community will become.
One potential point in your favor is that, depending on your organizational structure, you may be able to sell yourself as a self-governing community. That is a negotiation point to your advantage. As a group, you have greater control and can make rules on yourself. For example, if parking space requirements are a problem, as a self governing community you could pass a covenant or policy that each household may have only two cars. You could use this as a negotiating point to ask for a reduction in parking requirements.
More advice about dealing with government agencies
- If agreements or understandings are made in meetings or over the phone, write down exactly what was agreed to or understood and fax it back to the appropriate official, with the date and decision, on the same day or as soon after as you can. Word it such as: " It is our understanding that on July 14th, The planning department agreed that ...." This creates a written record that may be needed later. If there is a misunderstanding it can clarified while the discussion is still fresh in everyone's minds. Be sure you check this process with the official first, or after doing it for the first time, ask if it is OK.
- Agency people often have their own agendas. Don't be afraid to ask why a rule exists or a process is used. When you know the reason why a rule exists, you can sometimes work around it another way.
- Build a good relationship with agency people. Send them flowers if they do something nice for you. Especially the clerical people. They do most of the work and get very little recognition or reward. A thank you card does wonders and can get you remembered in a positive way from a person who can do a lot to help you.
- Talk with local developers and learn who in the planning department not to work with. If the planning department is a busy place it will probably use a number system. When you go into the waiting room, take 3 numbers. Spread out some papers and look busy. If the person calling the first number is someone who is hard to work with, give that number to someone else who is waiting and wait until your next number is called.
This started as an article by Rob Sandelin, distributed in various forms and published online by NICA. Rob gave permission to post it here, knowing that it may morph into something new as we "wiki" it...