Planning and Land Use

February 22, 2018

This chapter was produced by community and regional planning staff of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, including James Grabowsky; Brian S. Johnson, Esq.; Reagan Johnson; Elizabeth Smith, A.I.C.P.; Jon Albert West, A.I.C.P.; Annaka Woodruff; and Cameron Yearty. 

Elected city officials have the ability to impact the landscape of Georgia in remarkable ways. Due to Georgia’s status as a Home Rule state, the local level of government makes all land use decisions. Because land use decisions affect private property, all requests to change designated land uses (usually referred to as “zoning changes”) must be made by elected officials, never by staff. In short, mayors and city councils are responsible for valuable economic, natural and community resources, and their decisions will have lasting impacts. How do cities, in the largest state east of the Mississippi River, plan for the use of our land areas, and how do we bring it all together and build communities that people are glad to call home?

Since 1989, with the passage of the Georgia Planning Act, every local government in Georgia has been required to complete a comprehensive plan in order to maintain its Qualified Local Government status (QLG). The 2014 update to the Minimum Standards and Procedures for Local Comprehensive Planning requires that each government update its comprehensive plan at least once every five years. The real utility of a local comprehensive plan does not simply come from updating the document regularly, but rather from actually implementing it well. Statewide discussions about water quality and quantity, housing opportunities, transportation, job availability and land conservation all highlight the need for an agreed-upon approach to these difficult topics, and our comprehensive plans offer such an approach. A properly developed and effectively used comprehensive plan can be the most effective tool a local government has to ensure that the inevitable changes that happen to all communities occur in a controlled, rational manner and bring about the results the community wants. Lester Bittel noted, “Good plans shape good decisions. That’s why good planning helps to make elusive dreams come true.” 

Plans of any type, whether business, governmental or personal, ask and answer three basic questions:
  1. What do you have?
  2. What do you want to have?
  3. What are you going to do to get it? 
While Georgia’s comprehensive plans provide guidance for a variety of community topics, including economic development and regional cooperation, these plans mostly provide a roadmap for the physical development of the community—how we use and shape our land. “Land use” is a loosely used term that refers to any decisions made about land and zoning regulations. Generally, “planning and land use” assumes that decisions regarding a jurisdiction’s land are made in accordance with an adopted comprehensive plan. Therefore, by formulating and using a comprehensive plan, a city council is making decisions about the shape and form of the land under its jurisdiction and is directly impacting the design of the community. In short, what does the community look like and how does it function, both now and in the future?

Georgia is changing rapidly. In some places, those changes are obvious and expected; elsewhere, the changes often go unseen and have subtle, but meaningful, consequences. Leadership with a clear vision for the future is necessary to guide our communities into the 21st century. No matter the diversities in population, landmasses, natural resources or economic makeup of Georgia’s cities, sound planning and effective implementation can make a positive difference in each community and, collectively, the entire state.


What the Comprehensive Plan is For (The Purpose and Intent of the Plan)
Georgia’s Minimum Standards for Local Comprehensive Planning provide a guide to everyday decision-making for use by local government officials and other community leaders. Decision-making is difficult at the best of times, even more so when debated and made in the public eye. The comprehensive plan represents the voice of the citizens of the community—what they want the community to look like, what they cherish, what they would like to change, what they consider the prevailing needs and opportunities to be in the community. As such, the comprehensive plan should act as a guide for elected officials when making rational, fair, and predictable decisions about the future of their community. Simply put, the plan is the electorate’s instructions to its elected officials.

What the Plan Looks Like (The Components of the Plan)
When the minimum planning standards were updated in 2014, DCA significantly streamlined the required process of plan preparation and drastically reduced the size of the plan document itself. These “new” standards enhance the plan’s focus on various “elements” addressing specific aspects of the community. Three elements are required for every community’s plan: Community Goals, Needs and Opportunities, and the Community Work Program. Additional elements may also be required based upon local conditions within the specific community. While these additional elements may only be required for some communities, it is still advisable for all communities to examine themselves and determine, for themselves, if they should opt to include these elements in their plans. The following table and paragraphs discuss each of the required elements.

In addition to the required elements, communities are encouraged to add optional elements into their comprehensive plan to address specific local needs. Examples of optional elements include Infrastructure and Community Facilities, Natural Resources, Community Sustainability, Disaster Resilience, Education, Greenspace, Historic and Cultural Resources, Human Services, Intergovernmental Coordination, Public Safety, Recreation, and Solid Waste Management. The local government itself should determine if it wishes to include any optional elements in its plan understanding that, while such a decision has no impact on DCA’s review or approval of the document, all elements must be prepared according to the minimum planning standards. Further information about these and other optional elements are available in the Supplemental Planning Recommendations produced by DCA.

Community Goals Element
Every comprehensive plan must have a Community Goals element. The purpose of the Community Goals element is to involve community leaders and stakeholders in developing a road map for the community’s future. The Community Goals are the most important part of the plan because they identify the community’s direction for the future. Community involvement in developing this plan is intended to generate local pride and enthusiasm about the future of the community, thereby leading citizens and leadership to ensure that the plan is implemented. The result must be an easy-to-use document readily referenced by community leaders as they work toward achieving this desired future of the community. Regular update of the Community Goals is not required, although communities are encouraged to amend the goals whenever appropriate.

The Community Goals must include at least one or a combination of any of the four components listed below:
  1. General Vision Statement. Include a general statement that paints a picture of what the community desires to become, providing a complete description of the development patterns to be encouraged within the jurisdiction.
  2. List of Community Goals. Include a listing of the goals the community seeks to achieve. Review the suggested community goals in the Supplemental Planning Recommendations for suggestions.
  3. Community Policies. Include any policies the local government selects to provide ongoing guidance and direction to local government officials for making decisions consistent with achieving the Community Goals. Refer to suggested policies listed in the Supplemental Planning Recommendations for suggestions.
  4. Character Areas and Defining Narrative. This option lays out more specific goals for the future of the community-by-community sub-areas, districts, or neighborhoods, and may also satisfy the Land Use requirements as discussed below.  
Needs and Opportunities Element
Every comprehensive plan must have a Needs and Opportunities element. The list of locally agreed upon Needs and Opportunities should primarily identify the challenges that the community intends to address through the comprehensive plan and the available assets which it will use to do so. Additionally, the list of Needs and Opportunities provides outside organizations and community members the chance to engage in addressing challenges which may be outside of the local government’s control. The list must be developed by involving community stakeholders in carrying out a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) or similar analysis of the community. The list that eventually makes its way into the plan is the final list that local leaders, the steering committee, and other interested parties have agreed are the most pressing matters that require the community’s attention over the following five years in order to achieve their goals. The following resources may also be enlisted to help stakeholders identify local Needs and Opportunities:
  1. List of Typical Needs and Opportunities from the Supplemental Planning Recommendations
  2. An analysis of Data and Information
  3. Analysis of DCA’s Quality Community Objectives.  
Community Work Program
Every comprehensive plan must include a Community Work Program (previously called the Short Term Work Program) which lays out the specific activities the community plans to undertake during the next five years to address the priority Needs and Opportunities and achieve portions of the Community Goals. This includes any activities, initiatives, programs, ordinances, administrative systems (such as site plan review, design review, etc.) to be put in place to implement the plan. General policy statements should not be included in the Community Work Program, but should be included as Policies within the Community Goals. The Community Work Program must include the following information for each listed activity:
  • Brief description of the activity
  • Legal authorization for the activity, if applicable
  • Timeframe for initiating and completing the activity
  • Responsible party for implementing the activity
  • Estimated cost of implementing the activity
  • Funding source(s).  
Alongside this work program in the comprehensive plan is a section called the Report of Accomplishments. It provides a status report on all the projects and activities that were included in the previous Community Work Program. It provides the community with an update of what items have been completed, are underway but not yet completed, have been postponed, or have been cancelled. Through this tool, the citizens and elected officials can see the local government’s ongoing track record and have a better understanding of where they stand in achieving the community’s long-term aspirations.

Land Use Element
Any community that has adopted district-based development regulations (e.g., zoning) must include a Land Use element in its comprehensive plan. The term “land use” is self-explanatory. It means just that—how does a community use the land within its jurisdiction? Is it a central business district or housing, industrial, retail, or conservation land? In the mid-20th century, when Georgia had a population of about a million people, our land seemed limitless. Now, as more than ten million people call Georgia home, discussions about how we use our land have taken a more urgent tone, even in rural areas of the state.

For example, Watkinsville, near Athens, experienced rapid growth since the beginning of the century. Its historic downtown has become a magnet for locally owned businesses. In order to maximize the existing urban design, Watkinsville’s Character Area Map (a component of the Land Use Element) provides a guide for growth that will enhance the city core as the community grows in population. In addition, the city planned jointly with Oconee County and the cities of Bishop, Bogart and North High Shoals, and made joint decisions with these other jurisdictions about infrastructure, open space, and agriculture.

In our state, land use decisions like these are made by local governments—either city councils or county boards of commissioners. With changing populations and limited resources, these decisions become increasingly important each year. Local elected officials have enormous responsibility for the health, vitality and appearance of Georgia’s landscape and natural resources. Making good decisions about our available resources may not be simple, but it is possible. Following the comprehensive plan can help take some of the emotion out of land use decisions and make those decisions more predictable and fair.

Two options exist for satisfying the Land Use Element requirement, Character Areas, or Future Land Use Map. A brief description of the two components is shown below:

1) Character Areas Map and Defining Narrative. Communities can choose to identify and map the boundaries of existing or potential character areas covering the entire community, including existing community sub-areas, districts, or neighborhoods. Character Areas are defined as specific geographic areas or districts within the community that have unique or special characteristics; have potential to evolve into a unique area with more intentional guidance of future development through adequate planning and implementation; or require special attention due to unique development issues. A list of recommended character areas is provided in the Supplemental Planning Recommendations for suggestions.
In thinking about Character Areas, it is important to remember that the intent is not to identify areas with or without “character” or areas that have a “good” or “bad” character. Rather, in delineating Character Areas, a community identifies places that share similar characteristics. Some areas have characteristics the community will want to preserve or enhance. Other areas will have characteristics that the community would prefer to change in order to accomplish its overall vision and meet its goals. For each identified character area, the community must carefully define and describe a specific vision that includes the following information:
  • Written description and pictures or illustrations that make it clear what types, forms, styles, and patterns of development are to be encouraged in the area.
  • Listing of specific land uses and/or zoning categories to be allowed in the area.
  • Identification of implementation measures to achieve the desired development patterns for the area, including more detailed sub-area planning, new or revised local development regulations, incentives, public investments, and infrastructure improvements.  
2) Land Use Map and Narrative. The community may choose to prepare a Future Land Use Map that uses conventional categories or classifications to depict the location, parcel by parcel, of specific future land uses. The Future Land Use Map must be prepared using either the standard land use classification scheme (categories listed below) or the Land Based Classification Standards (LBCS) developed by the American Planning Association. The Standard Classification includes: Residential; Commercial; Industrial; Public/Institutional; Agriculture/Forestry; Transportation/Communication/Utilities; Park/Recreation/Conservation; Undeveloped/Vacant; and Mixed Use. The Future Land Use Narrative should explain how to interpret the map and what each land use category means in the context of a specific community.

The choice of approach in creating the Land Use Element should be informed by the individual needs and aspirations of the community itself. There are “pros” and “cons” to each approach that a qualified planner can help you weigh. However, there is no “magic number” of character areas or scientific formula to figure out exactly where the boundaries of the land use categories should be placed. The maps and narratives can be as unique as the communities they represent.  Depending on the size, population, developed areas, natural characteristics and employment centers of a community, a map may show as few as three or as many as 20 different mapped areas.

If your Land Use Element appropriately identifies the unique, individual characteristics of your community in a way that makes sense to the elected body, the staff, and the citizens, then it is a “good” Land Use element. When the local government uses its map and narrative to make decisions about land use, community facilities, or capital improvements, then the comprehensive plan is put to its best possible use.

Additional Elements
  1. Capital Improvements Element. Depending on the characteristics of your community, additional elements may be required. For communities that charge development impact fees, a detailed Capital Improvements Element to meet the Development Impact Fee Compliance Requirements is required and should be substituted for this plan element.
  2. Economic Development Element. Local governments included in Georgia Job Tax Credit Tier 1 must complete the Economic Development Element, in which they first identify needs and opportunities related to economic development and then analyze the impact upon their community of such factors as diversity of the economic base, quality of the local labor force, effectiveness of local economic development agencies, programs, and tools. The regional Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) may be substituted for this element.
  3. Transportation Element. Communities located within a Metropolitan Planning Organization must evaluate the adequacy of the road network, alternative modes of transportation, parking, railroads, trucking, port facilities, airports, and the transportation/land use connection; the MPO regional transportation strategy may be substituted for this element. Local governments designated as HUD Entitlement Communities must complete this element to evaluate the adequacy and suitability of existing housing stock to serve current and future community needs, but the Consolidated Plan for the community may be substituted.  
Community Involvement
Because the plan ultimately belongs to the public, the comprehensive plan must be prepared with opportunity for involvement and input from stakeholders and the general public. Effective public participation, though admittedly difficult to accomplish, ensures that the plan reflects the full range of community’s needs and values. At a minimum, comprehensive plans produced in Georgia must follow the three steps listed below for involving stakeholders and the general public:
  1. Identification of Stakeholders. The individuals responsible for producing the plan must compile a list of the individual stakeholders who need to have a voice in the development of the plan. A list of potential stakeholders can be found in the Supplemental Planning Recommendations. While a large number and variety of stakeholders may be helpful in preparing the plan, a small group must be appointed to form a steering committee which will guide the planning process. Members of the local government must be included among the selected stakeholders and be actively involved in plan preparation, such as serving on the steering committee. A steering committee representative of the entire community can foster buy-in from all segments of the population and is vital to the implementation of the comprehensive plan.
  2. Identification of Participation Techniques. Because different types of people in different professions and of different demographic backgrounds and situations in life are more attuned to interacting with their government in different ways, a variety of methods of seeking public input is very helpful. The Supplemental Planning Recommendations contain a menu of potential community participation techniques which can be used to develop the plan.
  3. Conduct Participation Program. The stakeholders should be invited to participate in activities and events using the participation techniques the steering committee settles upon. These public events are intended to solicit specific input on the content of the plan. Regular meetings of the steering committee should be held to provide input and feedback to the plan preparers as well as the general public while the plan is being developed.
The Quality Community Objectives
The Board of the Department of Community Affairs has adopted the Quality Community Objectives (QCO) as a statement of the development patterns and options that will help Georgia preserve its unique cultural, natural and historic resources while looking to the future and developing to its fullest potential. The QCO’s are a useful guide for communities preparing their comprehensive plan and should be referenced throughout the planning process.
  1. Economic Prosperity. Encourage development or expansion of businesses and industries that are suitable for the community. Factors to consider when determining suitability include job skills required; long-term sustainability; linkages to other economic activities in the region; impact on the resources of the area; or prospects for creating job opportunities that meet the needs of a diverse local workforce.
  2. Resource Management. Promote the efficient use of natural resources and identify and protect environmentally sensitive areas of the community. This may be achieved by promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy generation; encouraging green building construction and renovation; utilizing appropriate waste management techniques; fostering water conservation and reuse; or setting environmentally sensitive areas aside as green space or conservation reserves.
  3. Efficient Land Use. Maximize the use of existing infrastructure and minimize the costly conversion of undeveloped land at the periphery of the community. This may be achieved by encouraging development or redevelopment of sites closer to the traditional core of the community; designing new development to minimize the amount of land consumed; carefully planning expansion of public infrastructure; or maintaining open space in agricultural, forestry, or conservation uses.
  4. Local Preparedness. Identify and put in place the prerequisites for the type of future the community seeks to achieve. These prerequisites might include infrastructure (roads, water, sewer) to support or direct new growth; ordinances and regulations to manage growth as desired; leadership and staff capable of responding to opportunities and managing new challenges; or undertaking an all-hazards approach to disaster preparedness and response.
  5. Sense of Place. Protect and enhance the community’s unique qualities. This may be achieved by maintaining the downtown area as a focal point of the community; fostering compact, walkable, mixed-use development; protecting and revitalizing historic areas of the community; encouraging new development that is compatible with the traditional features of the community; or protecting scenic and natural features that are important to defining the community’s character.
  6. Regional Cooperation. Cooperate with neighboring jurisdictions to address shared needs. This may be achieved by actively participating in regional organizations; identifying joint projects that will result in greater efficiency and less cost to the taxpayer; or developing collaborative solutions for regional issues such as protection of shared natural resources, development of the transportation network, or creation of a tourism plan.
  7. Housing Options. Promote an adequate range of safe, affordable, inclusive, and resource-efficient housing in the community. This may be achieved by encouraging development of a variety of housing types, sizes, costs, and densities in each neighborhood; promoting programs to provide housing for residents of all socioeconomic backgrounds, including affordable mortgage finance options; instituting programs to address homelessness issues in the community; or coordinating with local economic development programs to ensure availability of adequate workforce housing in the community.
  8. Transportation Options. Address the transportation needs, challenges, and opportunities of all community residents. This may be achieved by fostering alternatives to transportation by automobile, including walking, cycling, and transit; employing traffic calming measures throughout the community; requiring adequate connectivity between adjoining developments; or coordinating transportation and land use decision-making within the community.
  9. Educational Opportunities. Make educational and training opportunities readily available to enable all community residents to improve their job skills, adapt to technological advances, manage their finances, or pursue life ambitions. This can be achieved by expanding and improving local educational institutions or programs; providing access to other institutions in the region; instituting programs to improve local graduation rates; expanding vocational education programs; or coordinating with local economic development programs to ensure an adequately trained and skilled workforce.
  10. Community Health. Ensure that all community residents, regardless of age, ability, or income, have access to critical goods and services, safe and clean neighborhoods, and good work opportunities. This may be achieved by providing services to support the basic needs of disadvantaged residents, including the disabled; instituting programs to improve public safety; promoting programs that foster better health and fitness; or otherwise providing all residents the opportunity to improve their circumstances in life and to fully participate in the community.  
The Plan Adoption Process and Qualified Local Government Status
The Georgia Planning Act requires that each local government (city and county) adopt a comprehensive plan in order to maintain its Qualified Local Government (QLG) status. While there is no state-imposed penalty for not completing and adopting a comprehensive plan (on the schedule created by the Department of Community Affairs), local governments without QLG status are not eligible for state-administered grants, loans, and some permits.

The detailed procedures for submitting a plan for review and then adoption by the city council is available in Chapter 110-12-1-.04 of the Minimum Standards and Procedures for Local Comprehensive Planning. Below is a list of the activities leading up to a local government receiving its Qualified Local Government status:
  1. First Required Public Hearing. The purpose of the first public hearing is to brief the community on the process to be used to develop the plan, opportunities for public participation in development of the plan, and to obtain input on the proposed planning process.
  2. Developing the Plan. The plan should be developed through extensive community involvement, including at a minimum the use of a steering committee comprised of representative stakeholders.
  3. Second Public Hearing. A second public hearing must be held once the plan has been drafted and made available for public review.
  4. Submittal to Regional Commission for Review. The Regional Commission shall review the plan for potential conflicts with plans of neighboring jurisdictions, opportunities for interjurisdictional/regional solutions to common issues, and consistency with the adopted regional plan. The Regional Commission will then notify interested parties and submit the document to DCA for approval.
  5. DCA Review. DCA will review the required elements of the plan for compliance with the Minimum Standards and Procedures. This review may result in identification of deficiencies that must be resolved before the plan can be approved. The Department may also offer advisory comments for improving the plan, but these are only for consideration by the local government.
  6. Report of Findings and Recommendations. Within 40 days after submittal for review, the Regional Commission must transmit a report of findings and recommendations to the local government. If the Regional Commission or DCA rejected the plan, revisions must be made and an updated plan must be resubmitted.
  7. Adoption of the Plan. Once DCA finds the plan to be in compliance with the Minimum Standards and Procedures, the local governing body may adopt the approved plan. Within seven days of local adoption of the approved plan, the local government must provide a copy of the adoption resolution to the Regional Commission. Within seven days of receipt of this written notice, the Regional Commission must forward this resolution to the Department.
  8. Qualified Local Government Certification. Once DCA has been notified by the Regional Commission that a local government has adopted the approved plan, DCA will notify the local government that Qualified Local Government certification has been extended. Once adopted by the local government, the availability of the plan must be publicized by the local government for public information. This requirement may be met by providing notice in a local newspaper of general circulation, posting notice on the local government’s website, or using similar means to notify the public of plan adoption and directing them where a complete copy of the plan may be reviewed.  
Implementing the Plan
Every decision a city council makes is a step to implementing the plan—or not. Did you consider the character area description before rezoning a parcel of property? Is your vote consistent with that description? Then the council has just helped implement that comprehensive plan. Did you look at the Land Use Element? Did you make a decision consistent with the measures outlined there? Again, that decision helped implement your plan. Conversely, when a council votes inconsistently with its plan, it becomes increasingly difficult to show that the plan is the guide for community decisions, and the legal defensibility of future decisions is eroded.

Consider these questions as a guide to implementing the comprehensive plan for your city:
  • Will this decision further the vision for the character area written in our comprehensive plan?
  • Is this decision consistent with our Future Land Use Map or Character Area Map?
  • Is this decision consistent with a stated policy in our comprehensive plan?
  • Does this decision address a need or opportunity stated in our comprehensive plan?
  • Does this decision address an item in our Community Work Program?  
Infrastructure decisions at the city level include what type of infrastructure and where to put it. The most common infrastructure types include:
  • Roads and bridges
  • Water
  • Sewer
  • Stormwater facilities
  • Parks and recreation facilities
  • Police, Fire and EMS facilities
  • Libraries
  • Schools (governed by local school boards)  
The placement of these facilities determines in large part where future development will go as well. Land adjacent to public investment is more easily developed and is more likely to be converted from agriculture, conservation, or another “green” use to a more intensive use when public facilities become available. For this reason, a city council should be careful to avoid environmentally sensitive areas when choosing the location of water, sewer, and road facilities.

Consider also that building libraries and public safety facilities (especially fire stations and police precincts) invites residential development nearby. The placement of public facilities and investments directly impacts land use. City councils that consult their comprehensive plan to identify areas most receptive to development while avoiding those areas that cannot support development are ensuring the long-term viability of their communities.

Zoning and Sprawl
“Sprawl” refers to the conversion of land from a rural/agricultural nature to some form of suburban function, which is generally auto-dependent and lacking connectivity. On the surface, many people find the look and feel of a sprawling development pattern to be unpleasant. Beyond that, however, a broad body of research demonstrates that it is a significant detriment to the natural environment, a major contributor to traffic gridlock, and an inefficient drain on local government resources.

“Zoning” is the primary regulatory method used by local governments to influence, guide, and control development as they carry out their plans for physical and economic growth. Zoning codes are one of the “police powers” granted to cities. The administration of these codes is governed by Georgia’s Zoning Procedures Act (O.C.G.A. § 36-66-1 et seq.).

A zoning ordinance establishes the conditions under which land may be developed and used for particular purposes. It also contains a map that divides the jurisdiction into various districts for particular classes of residential, commercial, industrial, and other uses. A zoning ordinance specifies what types of development may take place in each zoning district of the jurisdiction. It stipulates the allowable size and height of structures and sets forth the requirements for lot size, setbacks, street parking, and other related considerations. A zoning ordinance is not a comprehensive plan or a land use plan, but it can be used to implement such plans by controlling how land is used.

How does a zoning code influence sprawl? Most local zoning plans are designed to separate land uses. Residential uses are allowed in one area of the community, while retail and commercial uses are provided in another area. The original intent of zoning codes was to protect public health and welfare by removing particularly onerous uses, like heavy industry or landfills, from proximity to the rest of the community. However, this segregation of land uses gradually increased to result in a disconnection of nearly all land uses. Throughout the 20th century, most of America continued to require a separation of uses, resulting in communities that depend on automobiles for any movement around the community at all. Making room for all those automobiles only increased the sprawling landscape, as we required more parking spaces for more automobiles and wider streets to move the cars from place to place.

According to urban planning professor Dr. William Fulton, “between 1982 and 1997, the amount of urbanized land used for development in the United States increased by 45% (from 51 million acres to 76 million acres.) The population grew by only 17%.” This type of land conversion is grossly inefficient and resource-intensive. As such, the decisions made by local governments are even more pressing as we move into the 21st century. If the zoning code in your community seems to be promoting sprawling patterns, it probably is. Some of the first places to look to make improvements include the following:
  • Parking requirements
  • Street connectivity requirements
  • Building setbacks (how far away from each other and the road buildings are required to be)
  • Building height limitations
  • Minimum lot sizes in excess of ½ acre when they are applied to all residential and commercial areas regardless of their location in the community.  
While the zoning code in your community may need an overhaul, the decisions the city council makes regarding rezoning requests have enormous influence on sprawl as well. When houses are built far from a town center or any community resources, those decisions create sprawl. Those houses require roads, public safety coverage, schools, and a place to buy goods and services. Over time, those resources creep out to the houses, generally along a single roadway, creating a linear development pattern that devours land formerly used for agriculture, conservation, or another green use. In addition, that creep tends to weaken the viability of existing town centers, resulting in dead shopping centers, historic downtowns with no businesses, and non-productive gaps throughout the community. Not only is this development pattern visually unattractive, it is also inordinately expensive when providing public services.

Carefully crafting and implementing your comprehensive plan’s land use element can reduce the spread of sprawl. Referring to the plan to make land use decisions provides local governments with a strong, defensible foundation on which to consider the best interests of the community as well as the property owner when making a decision about a zoning district or a rezoning request.

The Planning Commission
The planning commission is an advisory board appointed by the local elected body. If it is a joint city-county planning commission, some members are appointed by the county governing authority and others by the mayor and council. The planning commission’s mission is to plan for the community’s future. This role calls upon the commission to look beyond short-term solutions, the technical views of government staff and department heads, and the particular concerns of local special-interest groups. Members of the planning commission should have no actual or even potential conflicts of interest. They should be encouraged to attend training programs sponsored by DCA, the Georgia Municipal Association, the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, universities, professional associations, and state or regional agencies.

The planning commission ordinarily interprets the zoning ordinance and amendments and makes recommendations to the city council on rezoning requests. Many planning commissions also regulate the subdivision of land parcels. Some may also act as a “Design Review Board,” meaning that they will review and make recommendations on the site and building design proposals, particularly for commercial development. The commission may receive technical assistance from a professional staff and department heads and consultants in performing these functions. If the city does not have a planning commission, the city council normally assumes planning commission functions.

Regional Planning and Land Use

As the largest state east of the Mississippi River, Georgia holds an amazing number and diversity of natural, historic, cultural, and archaeological resources. Many of these resources do not adhere to any manmade jurisdictional lines, but straddle cities, counties, and entire regions. These resources are so important to our state that Georgia has a regional approach to managing, protecting and enhancing these assets.

Regionally Important Resources
A Regionally Important Resource (RIR) is a natural or historic resource that is of sufficient size or importance to warrant special consideration by the local governments having jurisdiction over that resource. The Georgia Planning Act of 1989 (the same law that provides for comprehensive planning by local governments) authorizes the Department of Community Affairs to establish procedures for identifying RIRs statewide. DCA has established rules for use by the Regional Commissions in preparing a Regional Resource Plan that systematically identifies the RIRs in each region and recommends best practices for use in managing these important resources.

Each regional commission has prepared a Regionally Important Resources Map and an accompanying resource management plan. Georgia’s diversity provides us with a wealth of these resources, ranging from the Appalachian Mountains to the coastal plain. Our natural resources include floodplains, marshlands, steep slopes, and rivers and streams. Our historic resources include historic properties, archaeological sites, and cultural resources. Each regional commission utilized a resource nomination process to determine a final list of RIRs that form the foundation of the Regional Resource Plan. The state’s goal is to create a green infrastructure network among these RIRs to preserve and enhance those special places that Georgians have deemed important. In this context, Green Infrastructure Network means a strategically planned and managed network of wilderness, parks, greenways, conservation easements, and working lands with conservation value that benefits wildlife and people, supports native species, maintains natural ecological processes, sustains air and water resources, links urban settings to rural ones, and contributes to the health and quality of life for the communities and citizens sharing this network. The network encompasses a wide range of elements, including natural areas such as wetlands, woodlands, waterways, and wildlife habitat; public and private conservation lands such as nature preserves, wildlife corridors, greenways, and parks; and public and private working lands of conservation value such as forests, farms, and ranches. Additionally, a portion of the Green Infrastructure Network incorporates outdoor recreation and trail networks. Each region’s Regional Resource Plan is available on DCA’s Regional Planning webpage.

Regional Planning
Much like a comprehensive plan for a local government, the regional plan prepared by each regional commission should guide decisions for the region. The regional plan includes the region’s vision for the future as well as the strategy for achieving this vision. Because the regional plan provides guidance for future decision-making about the region, it must be prepared with adequate input from stakeholders and the general public. The regulations governing regional planning require it to include three major components:
Regional Goals for the future development of the region
  • A list of Regional Needs and Opportunities identified for further action
  • An Implementation Program for achieving the regional vision and for addressing the identified Regional Needs and Opportunities. The implementation program must include:
    • Local Government Performance Standards that establish minimum and exceptional levels of performance expected of all actors in implementing the recommendations of the plan
    • A Regional Work Program listing regional commission responsibilities for implementing the plan.
More information can be found on DCA’s webpage for regional planning.

Developments of Regional Impact
Developments of Regional Impact (DRI) are large-scale developments that are likely to have regional effects beyond the local government jurisdiction in which they are located. The Georgia Planning Act of 1989 authorized the Department of Community Affairs to establish procedures for review of these large-scale projects. These procedures ensure communication between affected governments and provide a means of revealing and assessing potential impacts of large-scale developments before conflicts relating to them arise. At the same time, local government autonomy is preserved since the host local government maintains the authority to make the final decision on whether a proposed development will or will not go forward.

Population and Development Thresholds
Thresholds are used to determine whether a proposed development qualifies as a DRI. The thresholds vary by type of development and the population category of the county in which the proposed development will take place. There are various categories of development, each with separate thresholds, including (among others): office, commercial, hospitals, housing, industrial, hotels, mixed-use, airports, recreation, post-secondary schools, waste disposal, quarries and asphalt plants, wastewater treatment and petroleum storage, etc.

Because communities across the state and within each region have a wide range of population and development levels, the state is divided into tiers to determine what specific threshold is applicable to a given geographic area. For most of the state, this is reflected in two population-based tiers (Metropolitan Areas and Non-Metropolitan Areas). Within the territory of the Atlanta Regional Commission, thresholds are aligned with the Regional Development Map presented in that commission’s regional plan. The thresholds vary because a development in an area with low levels of population and development intensity is likely to have a greater relative impact than it would have in an area with higher levels of population and development.

Local Government Role
The local government role related to DRIs includes the following:
  • Identifying potential DRIs as part of their own local development review process. Examples of activities triggering the process include rezonings and issuance of development permits or building permits.
  • Notifying the regional commission of all potential DRIs for intergovernmental review.
  • The local government is strongly encouraged to take the findings of the RC into account when making a decision to approve, approve with conditions, or deny a proposed DRI.
  • Local governments should take advantage of any opportunity to review DRIs proposed in neighboring jurisdictions and provide meaningful feedback if they see ways that adverse consequences of the development could affect their community or if there are ways to work collectively to maximize the potential benefits of important development projects.
Always contact your regional commission if you suspect that a potential development in your community could be a DRI or if you have any other questions about the program. Additional information about Developments of Regional Impact can be found on DCA’s webpage for DRIs.

Sources of Help
Most local elected officials serve a variety of roles in the community, and many juggle business and family as well. To make the responsibilities of planning and land use decisions easier, Georgia provides a variety of resources, both through individual technical assistance and web-based information. Local planning staffs are usually the first point of contact in planning matters, but even if a city does not have a professional planner on its staff, other staff members may be able to provide some information or insight regarding the planning matter at hand. Of course, in any situation involving legal matters, consult the city attorney.

The following organizations are public agencies and non-profit organizations dedicated to assisting local governments in Georgia. This list is not comprehensive but merely an overview of where to begin to look for assistance.
  • GMA is a voluntary, non-profit organization that provides legislative advocacy, educational, employee benefit and technical consulting services to its members.
  • Regional Commissions provide a wide variety of assistance to local governments in preparing and implementing comprehensive plans and are often the first place to call for planning help.
  • The Department of Community Affairs can help local governments with planning, land use and plan implementation questions. As the state agency responsible for implementing the Georgia Planning Act, they will provide assistance regarding any aspect of the planning act and related rules.
  • The Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia provides education, assistance, research, policy analysis, and publications to assist public officials in serving citizens in Georgia and throughout the world.
  • The Fanning Institute works with communities of all types, within and outside of Georgia. With expertise in community, economic, and leadership development, the faculty and staff of the Fanning Institute provide customized approaches to develop skilled community leaders, create vibrant communities, and promote prosperous economies.
  • The Georgia Institute of Technology Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development produces, disseminates, and helps implement new ideas and technologies that improve the theory and practice of quality growth.
  • The Georgia Planning Association encourages, promotes and assists physical, economic, and human resources planning within the State of Georgia.
  • The Georgia Conservancy collaborates, advocates, and educates to protect Georgia's natural environment. Through its focus on clean air and water, land conservation, coastal protection, growth management and education, the Georgia Conservancy works to develop solutions to protect Georgia’s environment and promote the stewardship of the state’s vital natural resources.

Pulling it All Together

The 21st century is a time of great change for Georgia. Our demographics are changing, and there are more of us than ever before. In addition, because of our growing role as a global transportation and business hub, our economy is increasingly affected by the national and international economies. It may seem that the decisions made in city council chambers have little effect on the state as a whole, but in fact, these local decisions create the sum of change for Georgia that is our legacy.

Urban design, even for the smallest of cities, can make an enormous impact on our built environment. As we grow and develop into the 21st century, our cities are an exciting place to focus our development efforts. In May 2010, the Southern Growth Policies Board quoted the Harvard Business Review in its report that cities are seeing a resurgence in interest from people wanting a more walkable, diverse lifestyle than suburban areas can provide. The original “downtown core” of even our smallest cities offers a place from which to start and maintain as we develop outwards. Because builders and developers generally develop a parcel at a time, rather than tackling an entire community at once, it is important for each city to have a clear, written vision as to how it would like its physical environment to build out. This vision can help a city knit an interesting urban fabric, even though it may take years to complete. All of Georgia’s cities have seen both booms and busts. Some of the most interesting cities in the 21st century are those that fell on hard times in the mid-20th century, looked at their declines, and planned for how to change their futures. These turnarounds were not quick or easy, but they have paid big dividends for their citizens. Decatur, Brunswick, Savannah, Madison, Monticello, Greensboro, Athens, and many others have all made impressive progress toward being true “live-work-play” communities where people are choosing to move. Georgia’s municipalities have the opportunity to consider the overall look and feel of the community they have as well as the community they want to be, and through effective planning they can greatly increase their chance of obtaining future goals and maintaining past successes.

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