Comprehensive Plan

This section will look at how a municipality can use comprehensive planning to support its objectives and create a vision for the future.

How do we begin?

Most successful planning efforts begin with a survey of existing conditions and a determination of the municipality's vision for the future. This process, usually referred to as comprehensive planning, should not be confused with zoning or other land use regulatory tools. Instead, the comprehensive plan should be thought of as a blueprint on which zoning and other land use regulations are based.

The State statutes define a comprehensive plan as “the materials, written and/or graphic, including but not limited to maps, charts, studies, resolutions, reports and other descriptive material that identify the goals, objectives, principles, guidelines, policies, standards, devices and instruments for the immediate and long-range protection, enhancement, growth and development” of the municipality.

To begin the process of developing a comprehensive plan, the legislative body of the city, town or village must determine whether it will prepare a comprehensive plan itself, or delegate the responsibility to it planning board, or perhaps to a “special board” created for the purpose. The board that prepares the plan may then decide to work with a consultant or planning staff in preparing a draft plan.

The Legislature has enacted statutes (General City Law §28-a, Town Law §272-a, Village Law §7-722) to guide boards through the comprehensive plan process. A municipality has the option to adopt a comprehensive plan under these statutes, or to proceed through a planning process which has evolved based on case law.

An important component of the process is public participation. This occurs both formally, through mandatory hearings held by the preparing board and by the legislative body prior to adoption of the plan, and through the informal participation of the public at workshops and informational sessions.

What does a comprehensive plan look like?

While comprehensive plans may take many forms, there are common elements to all good plans. First of all, the plan should be comprehensive. This means that your municipality's plans must reflect a total planning strategy that recognizes the needs of the entire municipality. In contrast, development policies that serve special interests, or ad hoc actions that single out small parcels without a good reason, will usually fail legal challenges.

Is professional help available?

Communities which do not have professional planners on staff have several resources available to them. First, they may be able to receive assistance from their county or regional planning agency. Second, they may be able to contract with a professional planning or engineering firm which provides planning services. Third, municipal residents may possess expertise in planning or other environmental or design disciplines.

When contracting for professional planning services, it is helpful to develop a request for proposals (RFP) that you can circulate to planning professionals. In the RFP it is important to describe your municipality's needs and the purpose of your planning efforts, but it is not necessary to provide a great deal of detail. You should make clear exactly what you expect the planners to provide (do you need graphics, or special economic studies?). Make sure you ask about the planner's experience, and ask for examples of his or her work. Finally, provide a time line for completion of the work.

How long or detailed does my municipality’s comprehensive plan need to be?

Since each municipality that has the power to regulate land use has a different set of constraints and options, the final form of each comprehensive plan will be unique. The size and format of the comprehensive plan will vary from municipality to municipality, and from consultant to consultant. It may consist of a few pages, or it may be a thick volume of information.

However long or detailed the plan is, its real value is in how it is used and implemented. The following sections present ways in which community objectives expressed in the plan can be achieved.