Obtaining a rezoning of property to a commercial zoning district is just the first step in the planning process. Typically, before breaking ground, most new commercial developments or redevelopments must first go through the local government’s site planning process. While zoning considers big-picture questions like whether the property is suitable for commercial uses, site planning digs into specifics about the project such as the layout of structures, parking, and site access.
As there are many overlapping issues, site planning is often done in conjunction with subdivision approvals – such as combining several existing lots into a larger lot that can accommodate the development. The first step in the site planning process involves contacting the planning office for a preliminary meeting or phone call to determine whether a site plan is even needed for the project. To make this determination, RSA 674:43(IV) allows the local government to create objective thresholds based on the size of the project that could allow smaller developments or redevelopments to skip the local site planning process entirely.
To begin the review process, a developer fills out the local government’s site plan application and submits a conceptual plan. Staff members from various departments (like road and bridge, environmental, current planning, building, traffic engineering, utilities, and fire safety) conduct a technical review of the application and provide comments to the applicant. These comments often provide a roadmap for the developer of the remaining permits needed from the local government before starting the project’s construction.
After meeting with the staff members of the technical review committee, the developer revises the plan to address the issues raised by the staff members and submits a final site plan application. The developer could choose to ignore the staffs’ comments on their conceptual site plan, but it is often very difficult to convince the planning board to approve the site plan when there are major issues outstanding with one of the local government’s permitting departments. This is especially so if the planning board delegated final authority for site plan approvals to this staff committee under RSA 674:43(III). On the other hand, sometimes the staff members go overboard with additional, unreasonable requirements that are unrelated to the standards for approval in the local code of ordinances.
The general scope of the site planning review is described in RSA 674:44, but there can be major differences between jurisdictions in the substance and procedure of their regulations. Site planning in New Hampshire generally involves a review of the project’s proposed:
- Layout of the structures. Reviewing the size, height, and location of the primary structures ensures that the project will meet local zoning requirements such as setbacks.
- Internal traffic flow. This ensures that customers and delivery or garbage trucks can easily and efficiently navigate the development
- Site access and connections to existing or proposed public highways. This review focuses on the connection of the internal driveway or streets to a public road and may place limitations on which direction traffic can turn into or out of the development. This review is often the basis for requiring certain mitigation measures like building a new turn lane or installing upgraded traffic control devices at the intersection.
- Pedestrian safety. This review may require additional crosswalks or sidewalks.
- Parking. This review ensures that there is adequate parking and handicap parking for the development and that the parking plan meets the local code requirements for minimum or maximum parking spaces.
- Connection to municipal utilities.
- Many local governments will require onsite retention of drainage for the project.
- This review ensures that there is sufficient lighting onsite and that the lights are not glaring onto neighboring properties (especially if they are residential).
- Environmental protection. Environmental issues during site planning often include:
- the development’s impact to wetlands onsite and any associated wetland buffers;
- pollution control;
- tree preservation; and
- conservation easements.
- Open space.
- The proposed landscaping is often demonstrated on a separate landscaping plan; otherwise, the site plan itself tends to look a little too “busy” with all the information in one diagram.
- Fencing and screening. Fences, walls, or other screening are often required around dumpsters and to mitigate the impact of the development on neighboring properties – especially if they are residential.
Once the planning board has determined that the final site plan application submitted is complete, it has 65 days to act upon it unless that time period is extended. The time period to act may be extended 90 days by the approval of the selectmen or city council, or it may be extended by an applicant’s waiver. The planning board must decide whether to approve the plan, disapprove of the plan, or conditionally approve the plan. Upon determining that the application is complete, it begins considering the different aspects of the plan during a public hearing. The applicant or its representative addresses the different aspects of the plan and any concerns that the staff or board members may have. Members of the planning board may ask questions of the applicant. Additionally, members of the public, and abutters in particular, can provide input into whether a site plan should be approved. After the conclusion of the public hearing, the board will vote to approve, disapprove, or place conditions on the approval of the plan.