Five Tips For More Effective Land Use Authorities

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Well, because every city and town has land use authorities…

Updated March 31, 2023

If you’re not exactly sure who is supposed to review conditional use requests, or if the City Council seems to always have the final say while your Planning Commission is feeling left out, then your municipality may not be using land use authorities in the most efficient or effective manner. 

Designating land use authority power can help communities by delegating responsibilities within a local government (which helps it function more efficiently) by separating land use powers between various elected and appointed officials and staff members responsible for day-to-day code administration.

What Is/Are Land Use Authority(ies)?

A land use authority is a person, group, or agency designated by local governments (municipality or county) to execute land-use regulations. These authorities are responsible for applying local ordinances in everyday situations and for approving/denying land use applications.

In Utah, every jurisdiction has one or more land use authorities. Many jurisdictions also have different authorities for various types of land-use decisions, such as conditional uses, subdivisions, variances, and so forth. 

People commonly associate land use authorities with the city/town council, and it’s true that in certain instances the city/town council serves in that capacity. In fact, under Utah state statutes, the city/town council by default is the land use authority if none other is specified in the jurisdiction’s code.

As they are the default, it often becomes an overwhelming task for the city/town council to manage by itself when they are the only designated land use authority for all types of land use applications.  It also becomes frustrating for residents, and developers who expect timely review and processing of their various land use applications as bottlenecks and delays can occur in meeting scheduling.  In some communities rifts have also been created between the city/town council and other established bodies, boards, and commissions, who feel like their opinions are not valued or taken into consideration during the land use authority’s decision – even though they may be the more appropriate body, board, or commission to review the specific land use application type, or maybe more impacted by actions of or the decision of the land use authority 

The Land Use Authority Secrets

So how do you avoid all of those issues?  While the exact approach your jurisdiction should take to determine what land use authorities you need and how they should operate depends on the resources and needs of your specific community.   The following best practices can help:

  • Know what requires legislative approval and what does not. As land use applications are submitted, it must be determined if making a decision on that specific application type requires administrative or legislative approval. If the application is legislative in nature – the land use authority will likely remain in the city/town council.  If the application can be handled administratively (i.e. using adopting ordinances such as the zoning ordinance), then consider delegating land use authority power to the Planning Commission, Zoning Administrator, or other appropriate body, board, or person.
  • Make sure land use authority designations are made in the code. Land use authorities derive their powers from the ordinances (i.e codes) adopted by the municipality. If your code doesn’t say the Planning Commission is responsible for deciding final approval on a conditional use application, then the Planning Commission has no business approving/denying those types of land use applications until the municipality’s codes are updated to reflect current procedures/practices.
  • Use a table to summarize land use authorities. This makes it easy to see at a quick glance who has authority over what, which helps both staff and other code administrators delegate tasks as well as community members know whom to contact with specific applications and requests. Since appeal authorities are closely connected to land use authorities and arguably just as important, adding a column to the table for them is a great idea too. 
  • Make sure land use authority decisions are founded in the General Plan (legislative) and in adopted ordinances (administrative). A General Plan is created to help a community identify and coordinate its efforts based on long-term goals for growth and development. All land use decisions legislative in nature should be consistent with the General Plan. For administrative decisions, your adopted ordinances/codes are key.  Being able to point to a document that expresses the community’s vision or specific requirements to back you up is a great way to save your skin if the public doesn’t like a decision a land use authority for your community has made.
  • Know what’s mandated in State code. State law changes every year. For example, a bill passed in 2023 now requires land use authorities on the county and municipal level to adopt airport overly zones near areas used or intended to be used for airport purposes.

When The Authorities Are Swamped

You can relieve a lot of stress by bringing in a professional to help you refine your ordinances, get compliant with state code, and keep the public from rioting (while still making it home for dinner). 

Call Rural Community Consultants today to get expert planning and ordinance advice to make your community the best it can be. 

Want To Learn More?

Check out our online training modules! Note: We are able to provide access to specific training modules free of charge, courtesy of the Utah Office of the Property Rights Ombudsman.

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