Law Clarifies Planning Board Procedure on Site Plan and Subdivision Applications

[This article originally appeared in the New England Real Estate Journal, March 5, 1999.]

Developers should take note of recently enacted legislation clarifying planning board procedure on site plan and subdivision applications. New Hampshire Laws 1998, Chapter 274, clarifies the process for determining whether an application is complete. That determination is important because it triggers the time limit within which a planning board must act upon an application. The new law also shortens the time limit.

Under the new law, a planning board must determine if a submitted application is complete and vote whether to accept the application at its next regular meeting or within 30 days following delivery of the application. If the planning board determines that a submitted application is incomplete, then it must so notify the applicant in writing and describe the information, procedure or other requirement necessary for the application to be complete. If the planning board determines that a submitted application is complete, then it must begin formal consideration and make a decision on the application within the next 65 days.

For developers, this is an improvement over prior law, which merely provided that a planning board had to begin formal consideration of an application within 30 days after the submission of a “completed application” and had 90 days after submission of a completed application to make a decision. How and when planning boards determined whether an application was complete varied greatly from town to town. In some communities, a completeness determination was treated as a separate step in the process and was made before public hearings on the project began. In other towns, the planning board would determine that an application was complete only after public hearings had been conducted. Furthermore, under prior law, planning boards were not required to give specific, written reasons for deciding that an application was incomplete. This occasionally left the developer guessing at how to correct the defect. Although it is somewhat unclear as to how towns will specifically respond to these legislative changes, developers should face less uncertainty and enjoy greater uniformity from municipality to municipality.

Pre-submittal due diligence has been, and continues to be, the key to a prompt approval. For most projects, the applicant should consult with the local planning staff well prior to submission of a site plan or subdivision application to identify major issues or concerns and to minimize the chance that the application will be deemed incomplete. Proper advance planning can save significant time and money.