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5 Tips for a Successful Site Plan Review: Pitfalls to Avoid

In the world of construction and development, navigating the site plan review process can be a challenging yet crucial step towards realizing your project. Whether you’re a seasoned developer or embarking on your first planning project, understanding the intricacies of site plan review can make the difference between a smooth approval process and a frustrating series of setbacks. In this blog, we’ll explore five essential tips to help you achieve a successful site plan review, along with common pitfalls to avoid.

Understanding Site Plan Review

Before diving into our tips, let’s first clarify what site plan review entails and why it’s so important.

What is Site Plan Review?

Site plan review (SPR) is a comprehensive evaluation process that examines nearly every aspect of your project, except for the internal workings of your building. The building department will handle that. This review focuses on:

  • The site layout
  • Utilities
  • Grading and drainage
  • Building size and elevations
  • Landscaping
  • Parking and circulation
  • Environmental impacts

The goal is to ensure that your proposed development complies with local regulations and standards, and that it integrates well with the surrounding area.

How does SPR differ from a building permit?

While both are essential steps in the development process, site plan review typically occurs before you apply for a building permit. However, in some cases, these processes may overlap to some extent. The site plan review focuses on the overall site design and how your project fits into the broader context, while building permits deal more specifically with structural and safety aspects of the building itself.

How does SPR relate to zoning compliance?

Site plan review is closely tied to zoning compliance, but it goes beyond just checking whether your project adheres to zoning regulations. While it does involve assessing zoning use, size constraints, setbacks, and building character, site plan review also encompasses a more comprehensive evaluation involving multiple departments and considerations.

Who is involved?

Site plan review is a collaborative process involving various stakeholders, including:

  • Planning and zoning department
  • Engineering department
  • Site water management
  • Utilities departments
  • Fire department
  • In some cases, neighbors and community members

Each of these entities brings their own set of concerns and requirements to the table, making the process both thorough and complex.

What is an architect’s role in SPR?

You might wonder why you need an architect for site plan review when you can easily look up zoning regulations and find a checklist online. While it’s true that basic information is readily available, an experienced architect brings invaluable expertise to the process. They can:

  • Interpret complex regulations and apply them to your specific project
  • Anticipate potential issues before they become problems
  • Communicate effectively with various departments and stakeholders
  • Develop creative solutions that meet both regulatory requirements and your project goals
  • Guide you through the entire process, saving you time and potential headaches

Now that we’ve established the basics, let’s explore our five tips for a successful site plan review.

  1.  Meet with a Planner

One of the most crucial steps you can take early in the process is to schedule a pre-application meeting with a local planner. This step is required by most jurisdictions. This meeting serves several important purposes:

Mapping Out Required Processes

Site plan review might not be the only process you need to navigate. A pre-application meeting allows you to understand the full scope of what’s required for your project. The planner can outline all necessary steps, which might include:

  • Environmental impact assessments
  • Traffic studies
  • Historical preservation reviews
  • Public hearings

Understanding these requirements upfront helps you plan more effectively and avoid surprises down the line.

Gaining Valuable Insights

Planners have a wealth of knowledge about local regulations, common issues that arise, and the concerns of various departments. They can provide insights that might not be apparent from simply reading the regulations. This information can help you shape your project in ways that increase its chances of approval.

Building Relationships

Establishing a positive relationship with the planning department early on can pay dividends throughout the review process. It shows that you’re proactive and committed to working collaboratively with the jurisdiction.

Recommended Even If Not Required

Some jurisdictions may not require a pre-application meeting, but we strongly recommend scheduling one anyway. The benefits far outweigh the time invested, potentially saving you from costly revisions or delays later in the process.

  1.  Familiarize Yourself with Local Terms, Definitions, and Practices

Every jurisdiction has its own unique set of terms, definitions, and practices when it comes to land use and development. For example, in Boulder County, Colorado, the land use code states that measures should be taken to reduce the building’s impact on the site. Some design professionals might use local materials, transparent glazing, and other tricks to reduce the building’s visual impact. But as anyone that has permitted in Boulder County will find, the planning department’s frontmost concern regarding visual impact is light infiltration in the dark hours. So, the best tactic here is to reduce especially upper levels of glazing, which might seem contradictory to a first reading of the code. Understanding these local nuances is crucial for a smooth review process.

Dive into the Land Use Code

Take the time to thoroughly read and understand the local land use code relevant to your project. Pay particular attention to:

  • Definitions of key terms
  • Zoning districts and their requirements
  • Development standards
  • Application procedures

While this might seem tedious, a solid grasp of the local code can help you avoid misunderstandings and design conflicts later on. The heft of some land use codes might prevent professionals from knowing each jurisdiction’s local codes front to back. For example, Denver’s zoning code is over 1,500 pages! But having an overall familiarity of how the code is formatted, the general contents, and then the specifics of the portions relevant to your project will greatly aid in the success of your project.

Learn from Your Planner

Your conversations with the local planner can reveal valuable information about the primary concerns of the jurisdiction. For example:

  • Will governing bodies such as a city council be pushing for applications with higher proposed densities?
  • Is wildfire mitigation due to recent fires going to affect your site plan?
  • Will neighborhood input lead to additional processes to nail down neighborhood compatibility?
  • Are amendments to the International Fire Code by the fire department going to affect the layout of site (especially for townhome projects)?

This insider knowledge can help you tailor your design to address these concerns proactively.

Study Recent Approvals and Denials

Reviewing recently approved or denied projects in the area can provide insights into what the jurisdiction looks for in a site plan. This may be particularly beneficial for larger projects. Pay attention to:

  • Common reasons for denials or requests for revisions
  • Successful design strategies
  • Innovative solutions to challenging site constraints

This research can help you anticipate potential issues and incorporate successful strategies into your own project.

  1.  Know Your Timelines and Manage Expectations

The site plan review process can be lengthy and, at times, frustrating. Some jurisdictions may test your patience and mental resilience. Being prepared with the right mindset and tools can help you weather the storm more effectively.

Understand the Review Timeline

Every jurisdiction has its own timeline for site plan review. This can range from weeks to a few months to years, depending on the complexity of your project and the workload of the reviewing departments. Be sure to:

  • Ask for a detailed timeline during your pre-application meeting
  • Build this timeline into your overall project schedule
  • Include substantial buffer time for potential revisions or unexpected delays

Prepare for Multiple Rounds of Review

It’s rare for a site plan to be approved on the first submission. Expect to go through at least one round of revisions, if not more. Your planner can help indicate what is typical for your type of project. Though subsequent submittals have quicker review times than the first submittal, it always is longer than expected or was communicated. So factor this into your timeline.

Communicate Clearly with Your Client or Team

If you’re working with clients or a larger development team, it’s crucial to manage expectations regarding the timeline and potential challenges. Be transparent about:

  • The length of the review process
  • The possibility of multiple revisions
  • Potential costs associated with revisions or additional studies

Clear communication can help prevent frustration and maintain positive relationships throughout the process.

Stay Organized and Responsive

Keep meticulous records of all communications, submissions, and feedback. When you receive comments or requests for revisions:

  • Determine early who on your team is responsible for which comments
  • Respond promptly
  • Address each point thoroughly
  • Document how you’ve addressed each concern

This organized approach can help expedite the review process and demonstrate your commitment to meeting the jurisdiction’s requirements.

  1.  Assemble a Good Team

Site plan review often reveals conflicting wants and needs between different departments. Having a skilled and knowledgeable team can help unearth and address these conflicts early and efficiently.

Key Team Members

Consider including the following professionals in your team:

  • Architect: To oversee the overall design and coordinate between disciplines
  • Civil Engineer: For site grading, drainage, and utility design
  • Landscape Architect: For site layout, plantings, and outdoor spaces
  • MEP Engineer: For utility hook ups, coordination, and estimated load demands
  • Traffic Engineer: If your project might impact local traffic patterns
  • Environmental Consultant: For projects with potential environmental impacts
  • Legal Counsel: For complex projects or those requiring zoning variances

Benefits of a Strong Team

A well-assembled team can:

  • Anticipate and resolve potential conflicts between departmental requirements
  • Provide creative solutions to challenging site constraints
  • Navigate complex regulations more efficiently
  • Represent your project effectively in meetings and public hearings

Foster Collaboration

Depending on your project’s size and schedule, weekly meetings can be a great way to keep your project at the forefront of your consultant’s minds. All professionals in this industry are juggling multiple projects. Having a dedicated time each weak (or whichever interval is decided upon) helps monitor progress and increases open collaboration.

Local Knowledge is Valuable

When possible, include team members who have experience working in the specific jurisdiction your project resides in. Their familiarity with local processes and key personnel can be invaluable in navigating the review process smoothly.

  1.  Cushion Your Design

This may be the most crucial tip on this list. Because while thorough preparation can help you navigate many challenges, it’s impossible to anticipate every potential issue that might arise during site plan review. That’s why it’s crucial to build some flexibility into your design from the start.

Avoid Maxing Out Your Site

It can be tempting to maximize every square foot of developable space on your site. However, this approach leaves you with no room to maneuver if issues arise during the review process. Instead:

  • Leave some buffer in your setbacks
  • Don’t plan to use every allowable square foot of floor area
  • Provide more than the minimum required parking or open space

This cushion gives you the flexibility to make adjustments without completely redesigning your project.

Prepare Alternative Solutions

For key aspects of your design, consider developing, even at a cursory level, alternative solutions in advance. This might include:

  • Different building orientations
  • Alternate vehicle circulation or parking layouts
  • Various stormwater management approaches

Having these alternatives ready can help you respond quickly to feedback or concerns raised during the review process.

Be Open to Feedback

While it’s important to advocate for your design vision, be open to feedback from the reviewing departments or neighbors. Sometimes, their suggestions can lead to improvements in your project that you hadn’t considered. Their input can sometimes be used as leverage or extra support to advocate within your team for better design.

Document Your Rationale

For any design decisions that push the boundaries of what’s typically allowed, document your rationale clearly. This can help reviewers understand your approach and potentially support your decisions if questions arise. It is also a good reference for you and your team members. Keep in mind that site plan review processes can take a long time and at the end, you might not recall your rational for specific decisions made a long time ago.

Conclusion: Navigating to Success

Navigating the site plan review process successfully requires preparation, patience, and flexibility. By meeting with a planner early, familiarizing yourself with local regulations, managing timelines and expectations, assembling a strong team, and building cushion into your design, you can increase your chances of a smooth approval process.

Remember, site plan review is not just a bureaucratic hurdle to overcome. It’s an opportunity to refine your project, ensure it meets local standards, and create a development that integrates well with its surroundings. Embrace the process, and you may find that your project emerges stronger and more successful as a result.

Ready to put these tips into action? Don’t hesitate to reach out to us! We’re here to help you nail your review process and bring your vision to life.