Moratoriums: Do Not Pass Go… For A Bit

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How to call a timeout when your jurisdiction needs it.

To someone new to land use regulations, “moratorium” might sound like a mysterious spell cast by a famous young wizard with a scar on his forehead during a heated game of quidditch. But while it’s true they can be quite useful for freezing players on the field to allow you time to conjure up a solution to catching the golden snitch, they can turn into a real boggart if used inappropriately.

What Is A Moratorium?

“Moratorium” is a fancy word for “temporary land use regulation.” Moratoriums are used by municipalities and counties when special circumstances require emergency action (i.e., when the ordinary process for adopting land use regulations is too slow to avert a danger to the community).

Because moratoria are land use regulations, they are binding on all land in the jurisdiction until they expire or are replaced by a permanent land use regulation. Under Utah law, these temporary land use regulations have three unique qualities that separate them from other land use regulations: 

  1. A moratorium is temporary in nature. The legislative body enacting a moratorium must specify the maximum duration of the ordinance, and typically no moratorium can last longer than six months.
  2. A moratorium doesn’t require a recommendation from the Planning Commission or the full public process. Because moratoriums are built for emergencies – speed is key.  Enacting a moratorium doesn’t require prior consideration or recommendation from the Planning Commission like other land use regulations do, nor does it require the typical public notice required for the enactment of regular land use regulations.
  3. A moratorium cannot impose an impact fee (or any other fee). Fees charged by a local government must align with studies and schedules adopted by the municipality or county. Moratoriums do not give the governing body the authority to charge any new or increased fees where they didn’t apply before. 

Three Times You Can Use A Moratorium

The basic intent behind moratoria is to temporarily prevent certain land uses that could be harmful to the community until the community (via the Planning Commission, Council or County Commission’s public process) can have time to study the issue, decide on a long-term solution, and enact an appropriate regulation. 

For example, a developer might express interest in building high-rise apartments in a single-family residential zone, and when you look at the code, you realize your community’s code doesn’t say anything about density limitations or height limitations. The legislative body would want to use a moratorium to stop the clock before the developer applies for a building permit so it can add density requirements and height regulations to the code. 

Utah law gives three specific situations that can justify a moratorium: 

  • The legislative body finds that the moratorium is justified by a compelling public interest. This interest should be to eliminate a substantial risk to the public’s health, safety, or welfare of the community. In the developer example above, the potential drop in residents’ property values or impact on airport operations from the construction of a massive apartment building nearby and the change to the community atmosphere could qualify as a compelling public interest.  So could potentially unrestricted building heights with no consideration for adjacent land uses.
  • The area is unregulated. Land without any existing regulating land use ordinances don’t require a compelling public interest to qualify for temporary regulations. 
  • The land is the subject of an Environmental Impact Statement or a Major Investment Study examining the area as a proposed highway or transportation corridor. These studies conducted by government organizations such as the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) could be set back by unanticipated development in the area being studied. A moratorium lets the government pause development while the study is being conducted. The moratorium can only last for as long as the land is being studied, and are the only exception to the six-month maximum period for all moratoriums being renewed.

So if you’re talking about unregulated land, conducting an environmental or transportation study, or believe a “compelling public interest” is at stake, then a moratorium can be an effective way to buy yourself time to make the best decision for your community.

Note: if you want to learn more about how to enact a moratorium, check out this free civiclinQ module.

If The Planning Commission Thinks You’re Staging a Coup…

Then you might need to call in a professional to expedite the creation of a permanent solution that the Commission can move through the public process. Moratoriums only last for six months, after all.

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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