Practical Tips for Getting Site Plan Approval

[This article originally appeared in the New England Real Estate Journal, March 1, 2003.]

These days any substantial, commercial real estate project will require site plan approval from the Planning Board in which the property is located. Here are some practical tips for making the site plan approval process easier and, hopefully, successful:

  • Assemble a team of skilled professionals. The project team ordinarily should include an engineer and/or surveyor, a land use attorney, an architect, a soils scientist and a traffic consultant. Depending on the property, the type of use and the specific provisions of the municipality’s regulations, experts on economic impact, historic preservation and noise may also be required. For high-profile projects, it is sometimes beneficial to retain a public relations consultant as well to deal with the media and public scrutiny. The importance of these professionals cannot be understated – for a project to be successful, their expertise, experience and sound judgment will be crucial.
  • Identify what other permits and approvals will be necessary. In addition to site plan approval, a number of other state and local permits will be required for most projects. Some of these permits – for example, variances and special exceptions from the Zoning Board of Adjustment – ordinarily must be obtained before the Planning Board will undertake site plan review. Other permits, such as state wetlands permits and driveway permits, usually may be obtained after site plan review, as a condition of approval. The project team should also identify early on whether it will be necessary to obtain any waivers from the municipality’s site plan review regulations. Although such waivers are usually technical in nature (e.g., plan size or other requirements), unless proper application is made, consideration may be delayed.
  • Meet early and often with local officials. Meetings with a municipality’s planning staff will create a more friendly rapport, make them more knowledgeable about the project and may identify potential, unforeseen issues. In towns without professional planning staffs, meetings with the selectmen and other town officials may be helpful.

In addition, many Planning Boards appreciate use of the preliminary consultation process so that they can be aware of upcoming projects and better control their agendas.

  • Get express authorization from the current owners of the property. If the developer does not own the project site, most municipalities require the current landowners to give the developer and its agents authority to seek site plan approval. Make sure that this is provided in a separate document that can be submitted to the municipality, and do not rely on general expressions of permission in a purchase and sales agreement or option contract. Keep in mind, too, that often the purchase and sale agreement does not accurately identify the holder of legal title to the property and confirm that the authorizations match the title records.
  • Identify and address potential neighborhood concerns. Meetings with abutters and other neighbors to get their reaction and input can often neutralize potential opposition early on and win allies, which will be helpful during the public hearings. At the very least, such meetings will ferret out potential local concerns and identify issues to be addressed. On larger projects, community forums may be a useful tool in hearing feedback before the first official public hearing.

The site plan review can sometimes be a difficult process. Following these tips before the Planning Board’s consideration may eliminate potential headaches before they begin.