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Thread: Providing customer service on zoning matters [was: My misinformation]

  1. #1
    Cyburbian SideshowBob's avatar
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    Providing customer service on zoning matters [was: My misinformation]

    Bad month for me. This is the second stupid mistake I have made...

    Someone was going to buy the house next door and use it as a day care. I was not sure about daycare rules, so I asked my senior planner, who pointed out that it is a conditional use, one of the conditions being that the day care house must be 20 feet from a "R" property. It is not.

    So I told her "no can do." What I should have told her is that you must apply for a conditional use AND a variance to the 20 feet. There really is no hardship, but knowing our board, they'd have gotten it. The house sold at auction yesterday, so I feel as if I screwed the neighbor AND lowered the price for the seller.

    Anyone ever done something like this? What for me to do now?
    Fighting congestion by widening roads is like fighting obesity by buying larger clothes.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian munibulldog's avatar
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    Never encourage the use of variances. You were right to tell them the rules the way they are written.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Cityscape Dreamer's avatar
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    Never encourage the use of variances
    .

    ditto that. Just because the board doesn't uphold the ordinance doesn't mean that you shouldn't either. This was not a stupid mistake but a shining example of someone who does the right thing

  4. #4
    Cyburbian cch's avatar
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    I agree. You were telling them that as the situation currently was, they couldn't do the daycare. If they wanted to hire an attorney, do their own homework, etc, they could have figured out that applying for a variance was an option, though not a guarantee.

    I use to get in trouble (well, not major trouble) for telling people "well, if you apply for this, this and that, then you might be able to do what you want, if the board approves it." When the board wouldn't approve it, they'd feel like I gave mis-information, just to get an application fee out of them, or something.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Years ago, I knew a real estate agent who tended to say "People are stooopid." Her position: Keep explanations simple or you just confuse people. Sometimes, there is no "right" thing to say or do because no matter what you do, the people receiving the information will just garble it.



    MZ, who gets bashed a lot for her own long-winded explanations which are usually some attempt at "accuracy", not that anybody cares -- just "shut up already" and all that.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian SideshowBob's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cityscape Dreamer View post
    .

    ditto that. Just because the board doesn't uphold the ordinance doesn't mean that you shouldn't either. This was not a stupid mistake but a shining example of someone who does the right thing
    Even if I fell backwards into it... Problem was that I was relaying through a building inspector (and saw that the condition did not match and forgot about conditional use and was thinking "unpermitted"). I feel I should have spoken to them myself and told them that it is a conditional use and that they do not meet the conditions. At that point, it is thier job to ask about their recourse.

    Thanks.

    I am going to add to this inquiry...

    We have had a lot of development shortcuts and half-efforted turning in of information with development apps/procedures. Therefore the new-ish guy (me) has been charged with clarifying our applications AND creating flow charts that take people through various step-by-step directions. They look like board games from hell.

    Anyway, for each one, I start at "Is your property properly zoned?" And if the answer is "no", I go to "Apply for Rezoning." Is it the feeling also around here that the rezoning option should be thought of by the developer and not spoon-fed by us and therefore not acknowledged on our flow charts we hand out to everyone? In other words, is it similar to a variance in this way.

    (and for the "Building Permit" flow chart, our building official wants the variance option to be placed right on the sheet for those who don't meet setbacks, etc. It is at this point that I truly get what y'all are saying--variances, by definition, should not be encouraged. I'll see what side of this argument our director comes on. Probably the Building Official's.)
    Fighting congestion by widening roads is like fighting obesity by buying larger clothes.

  7. #7
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by SideshowBob View post
    I am going to add to this inquiry...
    Anyway, for each one, I start at "Is your property properly zoned?" And if the answer is "no", I go to "Apply for Rezoning." Is it the feeling also around here that the rezoning option should be thought of by the developer and not spoon-fed by us and therefore not acknowledged on our flow charts we hand out to everyone? In other words, is it similar to a variance in this way.

    (and for the "Building Permit" flow chart, our building official wants the variance option to be placed right on the sheet for those who don't meet setbacks, etc. It is at this point that I truly get what y'all are saying--variances, by definition, should not be encouraged. I'll see what side of this argument our director comes on. Probably the Building Official's.)
    You know, I don't like the premise or the message of the question: is your property properly zoned? it assumes the city/town has somehow messed up - I think the first step is to be positive to say: here's what you are allowed to do with your property

    even if your zoning code is horribly outdated, don't let people think that good planning is lot by lot re-zoning - encourage comprehensive looks at neighborhoods, if not the whole municipality

    and on variances - again, stay in the positive, have mini explanations as to why setbacks are necessary, even why the setback was chosen, if you can find that out - if you have a lot of variances, maybe the setbacks need a re-look

    we need to send the message as planners that there's a reason and a purpose for the zoning, not just to hinder landowners - so use your flowchart and other documents as a way to send the message of what the land use policy is for your municipality (and if they don't like the policy, yes, how to change it, but I wouldn't encourage piecemeal policy changes)

    good luck!

  8. #8
    Quote Originally posted by munibulldog View post
    Never encourage the use of variances. You were right to tell them the rules the way they are written.
    Yeah, but... citiizen should be made aware of all their options, including variances. We are here to provide information to the public so they can make an informed decision. We should be for good planning, but balance that with our duty to the public. Plus, it's been my experience people already know when they come in. They bring it up almost right away.
    When did I go from Luke Skywalker to Obi-Wan Kenobi?

  9. #9
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Sideshow, I think the approach you outline is correct. We can't expect that everyone walking in the office is a seasoned developer. You might change it to read something like "Does the property's current zoning allow the kind(s) of use(s) you are proposing?", but the question definitely belongs there. Similarly, you should notify people of the possibility of a variance. To pick up on another suggestion, though, you could benefit by some explanatory text, such as stating that existing or proposed zoning should still be consistent with the community's master plan, or stating that variances are rarely grants and only for unusual circumstances.
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  10. #10
    Cyburbian Otis's avatar
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    I would have told them that you need to get a conditional use permit, but you can't get that for the following reasons: ABC. Then I also would have said that it is possible that you could obtain a variance, but it is far from a sure thing, requires a public hearing, an application fee of $X, notice for Y days, etc., and here are the rules for requesting a variance. And you don't get your money back if you don't get the variance.

    I think you have an obligation to tell them about ALL the rules that are applicable, including those that might give them an out. It's good service and builds trust in the planning department.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian plankton's avatar
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    To provide the best customer service possible, I prefer a number of simple checklsts available in a brochure rack in the office lobby (and on-line) over flowcharts.

    We have one entitled, "Planning to Building a House".

    We have another one entitled, "Planning to Build an Accessory Structure (Garage, Shed, Deck, etc.)".

    A third one is entitled, "Planning to Build a Dock or other In-Water Structure". In this packet, we have contact information, and application forms, for the affected state and federal agencies.

    As for land use applications (i.e., variances, CUPs, zone changes), we use a similar approach (with, usually, not as many snazzy pictures). All application forms are available in the lobby and we provide comments on the forms to try to explain the research (and process) involved in complicated applications, such as zone changes (e.g., how to determine if your proposal is consistent with the local comprehensive plan).

    Obviously, you can tailor the forms to match your jurisdcitions' needs/values. A good one for communities desiring to retain tree canopy would be, "Planning to Cut Down Trees". (we like cutting down trees here so we don't have this one)

    In the application packets for development permits, we inclulde a sample site plan, sample erosion control plan, discussions about caluculating building height, setbacks, etc.. We use pictures wherever possible. I believe people respond better to pictures than a bunch of rhombuses and trapezoids connected by a series of arrows. If you have lots of spanish (or other) speaking folks visiting your office, translate the forms into those languages, too.

    The first page of our application packet is dedicated to a checklist where we ask the applicant to check appropriate boxes indicating that they have provided the requisite information (e.g., scaled site plan, erosion control plan, fire dept. sign-off, proof of potable water supply, adequate provisions for sanitary sewer, CUP criteria, variance criteria, etc.). One key box on developmetn permit (and some, land use) forms is, "Is the proposed use allowed in the zone? circle: Y / N" [leave space for an explanation on uncertainties]) Make sure all your zone district standards are easily attainable by the public. If you don't already have a good code interpretation process (Director decision on easy ones, Planning Commission on tougher ones) try to get one in place. Try to avoid over-the-counter determinations of compatibility for land uses not mentioned in your code.

    For me, the key on these forms has always been peeking in on other jurisdictions' forms and "borrowing" from the best. I think my latest packets are derived from jurisdictions in NH, WY, OR, WA & CO. Thanks guys!

    If you continue to be plagued by lousy applications, consider going to a "completeness check" system where you collect the three "basics" over-the-counter: A signed application form (with the required boxes "checked" by the applicant), fee payment, and plot plan. The key, at this stage, is to check the application for quantity (the "basic three") not quality . Thank the applicant for its submission and explain that you will get right to work on checking their project versus the applicable standards. I always try to interject some interest in their development proposal so the applicant tends not to leave our office feeling like just a number. Remember you have a monopoly on development and land use permits in your jurisdiction and that the customer is always right.

    If you determine during the completeness check that the application comes up short, it is very important to provide the applicant with a timely email (or letter) that explains the application deficiencies. It's important to get these letters out quick (same week or within five business days, if possible). Depending on direction from your superiors, and availability of time, you can use the "completeness check" process as an opportunity to try to fill in some gaps for the applicants. Of course, you can't make the application for them but you can explain things in basic terms, such as "I note your plot plan is missing a north arrow. Is the top of the site plan, north? Please indicate." Or, "there's no scale indicated on your plan but it looks like 1 inch equals about 60 feet. Is this correct? Please indicate." Or, if something is competely missing, or real bad, simply include it as an application deficiency and await their response. At least this way, you're doing work on your time and terms not while they're breathing down your neck at the counter.

    We also have a "zoning information request" form in our office. We likely would have had the prospective day care provider mentioned in your original post, fill one of those forms out, and we would have responded back in a day or two once we'd completed the proper research and crafted an appropriate response. I cannot tell you the number of times this form has saved me (or someone else) in the office. It provides a great record of exactly what information the inquirer was seeking and how we responded (typically in writing but sometimes a documented phone call will do.) We tell people our first 15 minutes of research is free but after that it's $40/hr. (we rarely charge the $40/hr except for some of our most notorious "frequest flyers").

    Good luck.

  12. #12
    BANNED
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    Half truth

    Have we come so far that the first three replies say it is ok to tell a half truth which is essentially a lie? Where have I heard, "the truth, the WHOLE truth, and nothing but the truth."

    How is the public served by not telling the whole truth?

    The variances and conditional uses are there because no ones plan is always 100 % perfect. Sometimes the lines we draw and rules we make are really arbitrary when all the facts are known.

    It might well be, SideshowBob, that you caused real harm to your nieghbors. If you did you should be ashamed.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian natski's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by plannerdude View post
    Have we come so far that the first three replies say it is ok to tell a half truth which is essentially a lie? Where have I heard, "the truth, the WHOLE truth, and nothing but the truth."

    How is the public served by not telling the whole truth?

    The variances and conditional uses are there because no ones plan is always 100 % perfect. Sometimes the lines we draw and rules we make are really arbitrary when all the facts are known.

    It might well be, SideshowBob, that you caused real harm to your nieghbors. If you did you should be ashamed.
    <start of my rant>

    Dude, your first post and you start having a go at someone who has had to the guts to, on an open public forum ask for advice in relation to some advice he gave out to a member of the public.

    Seriously, if anyone is actually thinking about putting a day care centre in, or indeed purchasing a house, the vendor and the buyer should do their research, not just by lobbying up to a Council and asking a couple of qns- but also getting a professional on board and setting up a proper meeting with the municiality.

    There is no use having a 'go' at someone that is asking for help- constructive criticism, IMHO is better

    <end of rant >
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  14. #14
    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Interesting.....

    Quote Originally posted by SideshowBob View post
    Bad month for me. This is the second stupid mistake I have made...

    Someone was going to buy the house next door and use it as a day care. I was not sure about daycare rules, so I asked my senior planner, who pointed out that it is a conditional use, one of the conditions being that the day care house must be 20 feet from a "R" property. It is not.

    So I told her "no can do." What I should have told her is that you must apply for a conditional use AND a variance to the 20 feet. There really is no hardship, but knowing our board, they'd have gotten it. The house sold at auction yesterday, so I feel as if I screwed the neighbor AND lowered the price for the seller.

    Anyone ever done something like this? What for me to do now?
    Every state I've worked in....and a couple I'm familiar with....have declared child care of state wide importance and as such have required by state statute that day care be allowed on residential property, generally up to 6 children (sometimes in addition to homeowner/providers children). Maybe this person was asking for a Commercial day care? Anyway, while it it important to be accurate in dealings with the public, it isn't worth the paper it isn't written on.....had it been important enough to the person, they would have put it in writing.

    If possible, its a good idea to keep a "Big Book of Interpretation/Determinations" handy at the counter....full of memo's from the boss on questions like this, since the current zoning code was in effect.
    “The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of non-violence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.”
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  15. #15
    Gunfighter Mastiff's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by SideshowBob View post
    What for me to do now?
    Just learn. It takes some time to find the right balance when dealing with these kind of issues and the public. It's very hard to tell people no, and just as hard for them not to misinterpret you, and at the meeting saying, "But the planner said this was a formality!"

    So first, ask yourself this. Is this something I can handle right now, or does it need a better review than I can give at the counter? If the answer is the latter, get their name and number, then give it the time it deserves. Before you call them back, find the right cites, write it up, and file it after you speak with them.

    Next, as our very new and peckish poster pointed out, there is nothing wrong with the whole truth. If it would require a CU permit, let them know. If it needs a variance... again, let them know, along with the procedure as Otis pointed out. But very importantly, also let them know where the staff will stand on the matter. Our code says this:

    CIRCUMSTANCES FOR GRANTING
    A variance may be granted only in the event that all of the following circumstances exist.
    ( 1 ) Strict or literal interpretation and enforcement of the specified regulations would result in practical difficulty or necessary physical hardship inconsistent with the objectives of this ordinance.
    ( 2 ) Strict or literal interpretation and enforcement of the specified regulation would deprive the applicant of privileges enjoyed by the owners of other properties classified in the same zoning district.
    ( 3 ) Special or unusual circumstances apply to the property or use which do not apply generally to other properties or uses in the same zone or vicinity.
    So, as staff to the PC, I would have no choice but to explain that the property does not meet the appropriate circumstances, and it will not be supported. Because they also need that... part of the whole truth, you see.

    Finally, if your PC is in the habit of just granting variance because people want them, they need some training on the rules, assuming of course, your code has similar criteria as ours. Their actions open the city to a wide variety of legal action, from the neighbors on the current action, to former denied variances, to future denials...
    Last edited by Mastiff; 05 Feb 2007 at 9:35 PM.
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