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Thread: Lessons learned as a zoning officer

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Clore's avatar
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    Lessons learned as a zoning officer

    As a somewhat experienced planner, but new zoning officer I'm interested in things that people have discovered through the years that they wish they had known or thought about earlier.
    Do you have any tips to share about being a zoning officer? Things you've seen work well, not so well?

    One thing I've learned so far is not to call someone and tell them that they're doing something they don't have a permit for.... they may have an old permit, may have been given the ok by someone else, etc.
    ...Moving at the speed of local government

  2. #2
    Cyburbian zman's avatar
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    Give Ample Warning and Be Fair
    I started is Zoning Admin in this job in March. After 7+ years of minimal temporary sign enforcement, I sent out a letter to area realtors and homebuilders stating that based upon Town Board's direction as well as based upon what is outlined in the code, I will be cleaning up temporary signage. They had a month to remove their own signs (some of them actually did) and then I sent a letter out stating that I will be collecting the signs and I also outlined the ramifications of future enforcement (we're actually taking someone to court in August over this now).

    Also be tranparent with your enforcement. Especially when realtors begin calling with: Their sign is up, but you took mine...
    Usually there is an good explanation for this and cut the BS in your answer.
    You get all squeezed up inside/Like the days were carved in stone/You get all wired up inside/And it's bad to be alone

    You can go out, you can take a ride/And when you get out on your own/You get all smoothed out inside/And it's good to be alone
    -Peart

  3. #3
    Cyburbian SGB's avatar
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    • If a landowner asks if they need a zoning permit to replace a lightbulb on the religious symbol they prominently display, the answer is "no."
    • There is no such thing as a complete municipal record of zoning decisions/permits for private properties. Accept this as a fact, and move on.
    • Remember to keep on the good side of your Board of Appeals. Feed them candy at their meetings, and don't forget sugar-free options for diabetics or dieters.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Plus Whose Yur Planner's avatar
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    1) Be flexible-don't win a battle just to lose the war.
    2) Document, document, document everything
    3) Keep the electeds in the loop
    4) Keep in mind that this too shall pass
    When did I go from Luke Skywalker to Obi-Wan Kenobi?

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Tide's avatar
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    Target one large problem at a time.
    i.e. Signs, Junk Cars, Open Storage
    Pick a month or a season to concentrate on 1 topic. Then you board or judge will hear many similar cases and act more consistent. Also keeps things simple for you.
    @GigCityPlanner

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Clore's avatar
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    Excellent stuff. Please keep it coming!
    ...Moving at the speed of local government

  7. #7
    Cyburbian ruralplanner's avatar
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    Pick your battles....the small violations that don't hurt anyone can turn into the biggest headaches. If you have a good corp consel willing to take it all on and be tough and efficient-- pick as many battles as you can.

    Take the high road and treat everyone the same. No special favors or closed eyes/turned heads for anyone!

    DO NOT create departmental policies to interpret a zoning ordinance if interpretation is really gray. Instead do an ordinance amendment with clear language. The problem with policies is that when the ZA finds a new job, policies tend to get lost/forgotton. Then all confusion will break loose with the staff left behind.

    Don't amend an ordinance without going through the legal amendment process. In other words no closed door amendments that magically appear. If you have them from past directors/ZA's, consider readopting you ordinances.

    If you are a planner writing an ordinance, include the zoning staff. They are the ones who have to administer it. If you are a planner, be ready for alot of grief from zoners because planners make things too confusing. Or so I have been told

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Clore's avatar
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    Excellent!
    One thing I did gather on my own was to use those lined post-it notes to keep track of calls, requests I make when someone submits a permit. People ask why things took so long, and I now have a list with dates as to why. I've also started to return incomplete permits so I'm not chasing people down all the time.
    ...Moving at the speed of local government

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    Become great friends with your municipality's attorney. You'll need her/his counsel frequently!

    Develop a good permit tracking system. If you don't have a system now, use a spreadsheet or database.

    Always give people the benefit of the doubt and more time. Occassionally, you will have people that will take advantage of this, but 90% of the time, they won't. And even if they do, you don't want to become a grouchy, hateful person as a result of your experience.

    Develop good listening skills. People will want to tell you their life story along with the reason that they can't comply with the ordinance. It's always information you can use to better understand their situation.

    Make sure you clearly understand the political will behind your zoning ordinance and which issues are the important issues for your electeds. If they don't care about regulating signs, then don't get yourself out there on a limb. For enforcement efforts, focus on the top five issues that are most important to them.

    Develop the ability to enjoy life in your town without feeling like you have to inspect code violations on your way to the grocery store or on your way home from a walk.

    No one ever wants "was a great zoning enforcer" on their tombstone. Think about how you can bring about important change and develop trust in government with your position. Zoning is a blunt instrument sometimes, but you are in a position to make it better.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Make a electronic word/excel file that has all the zoning actions you'll do (special use, variance, rezoning) and then print off the appropriate one when one of those permit applications comes in. Then fill in all the meeting dates/publication times/etc with the applicant so you both know the exact time something will take and when the meetings are.

    Put that piece of paper in a folder and check the folder daily so you never forget to do any important steps.

  11. #11
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    It's been a long time since I was a zoning administrator, and I know you'll probably find a problem with the method I'm going to describe below.

    Reverse triage.

    What's that? Let's say there's a part of the code that was never enforced in a community, such as sign regulations. Instead of going after the biggest violations first, I "tested the waters" with minor violations, such as portable signs, animation, advertising banners on light poles, and so on; violations that could be easily resolved. After I learned my lessons from the experience, and the local sign industry started to realize that the code was now going to be enforced, I went after bigger fish.

    Quote Originally posted by southsideamy View post
    Develop the ability to enjoy life in your town without feeling like you have to inspect code violations on your way to the grocery store or on your way home from a walk.
    That's a tough one. My very first job was in an area where the core city WAS the city in the region; basically, a metro area with one incorporated city, and mostly farmland and uninhabited desert beyond. There was no choice but to live in the city where I worked, and I found it was difficult to get out of "zoning enforcement mode"; I'd be having a great weekend, only to find ... oh, five new portable signs flashing away in front of some business, or some other flagrant violation that I had to mentally note for action on Monday. I also got conflicting goals from those above me; not enough enforcement is bad because it makes it look like the city doesn't care, so my performance evaluation got dinged. Work hard, and of course the odds get better that people with violations will get upset, call their city councilpeople, who call the PD, who then dings my performance evaluation. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. It was much more relaxing at a later job where I was a "jack of all trades" planning director in a larger metro, and I lived a couple of towns over.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  12. #12
         
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    Evaluate the Boss

    Your success as a zoning officer depends on having a boss with "Intestinal Fortitude"...i.e. someone who backs you up when offenders start feeling the pressure. If your boss takes your job and makes it his/her decision to overturn your actions, the public will not take you seriously.

    It's a good idea to have a general discussion with the boss to keep him/her involved as it prevents the opportunity for the offender to go around you to attain their objective.

    If the boss is gutless...start seaching for another place to work.


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