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Making Shoreline Protections a Reality

How to develop and adopt yoru own overlay

April 1, 2001 | By Jim Lively
and Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Adding shoreline overlay protections to an existing local zoning ordinance is a process of reaching out for expert information and feedback from the public, drafting an overlay, and fine-tuning it for final adoption.

The local planning commission is the group that starts the official process. The planning commission sends a final draft to the local elected body for its approval, which adds the overlay to the community’s current zoning ordinance as an amendment.

Here are the basic adoption steps and items to consider during the process:

1. Check your master plan
Coastal communities should adopt a shoreline protection overlay only if their “master plans” have established that coastal resources are important to local residents.

Master plans are the guiding documents behind all local planning and zoning. They should reflect the goals of local residents, which are made known through a public meeting process. Residents make clear what they value about their environment, economy, and culture and how they want their community to look and function in the future.

A local zoning ordinance is the set of regulations that put the master plan into practice. Only those zoning ordinances that accurately reflect the community’s goals and objectives, as expressed in their master plans, can stand the test of public opinion or hold up in court.

A coastal community that wishes to adopt a shoreline protection overlay should make sure its master plan reflects a strong commitment to protecting coastal resources. If the master plan does not adequately address shoreline resource protection, or is more than seven years old, the community should update it to include language that supports shoreline protection.

Amendments to existing master plans require public hearings, which are good places for communities to start if they have not yet spelled out their commitment to the coast. Most master plans in coastal areas, however, do recognize shoreline resources — scenic views, recreation values, water quality, wildlife — as important local assets. In that case, a public hearing is required only after the local planning commission is ready to amend the community’s existing ordinance to add the shoreline protection overlay.

2. Contact interested parties

The planning commission will make it known at its regular public meetings that it is considering a shoreline protection overlay. Planning commissioners should also reach out to homeowners’ associations, civic groups, and others who would take an interest. It is similarly a good idea to let local elected board members know that the process of preparing an amendment to the zoning ordinance is underway. These elected officials must ultimately approve of the overlay amendment to the zoning ordinance. It is helpful if they, along with interested local residents, understand the rationale of the shoreline protection overlay and the process for adding it to local zoning.

Other important people to contact at this stage are permitting officials in the area, such as the county sanitarian, soil erosion control officer, drain commissioner, and building inspector. Each has a role in reviewing and approving home construction and other developments. The shoreline protection overlay relies on them to perform those duties. But it also allows the village or township to apply additional design standards and to act as the permitting gatekeeper — the one that checks to see if developers have met all requirements. It is wise to consult with these permitting officials early in the process to learn from their expertise and investigate ways local government offices can coordinate their work.

3. Evaluate staffing needs

A community should consider the additional training that its zoning officials will require. The necessary skills include how to evaluate site plans, calculate slopes, define ridgelines, evaluate forest cover, and map general vegetation areas.

Communities that use a resource inventory to map their shoreline protection overlay zone are at a cost advantage here. The inventory map provides zoning officials with information on many slopes, soil types, wetlands, and other details.

If coastal communities do not have their own resource inventory and map, they must require landowners to supply the details. That creates problems for the landowner, who must hire resource experts to do the work. It also creates problems for the community if local officials do not have enough training to adequately review the landowner’s site plan. (See Overlay Zone Boundary-->Overlay Zone Boundary)

4. Prepare a draft
Coastal communities should base their proposed shoreline protection overlays on their master plans, their particular coastal resources, and on the insights of interested citizens, organizations, and other permitting officials. With information and feedback, the planning commission decides on building setback distances, vegetative buffer zone requirements, and any additional restrictions, such as habitat protections and night sky regulations.

The planning commission should select appropriate provisions from model shoreline protection overlays, perhaps refine and add to them, and then work with legal counsel to fit the overlay zone onto the community’s existing zoning ordinance.

5. Hold a public hearing
The planning commission must take its draft overlay zone and protection requirements to an official public hearing for feedback. Preparation for this event can include interviews with the local media and presentations to civic groups and homeowners’ associations.

Depending on local interest and acceptance, the planning commission will hold one or more public hearings and use comments to finalize the draft. Then it will send the proposed shoreline protection overlay to the local elected board for approval.

6. Amend zoning ordinance

The local elected board will also hold a public hearing on whether to amend the community’s existing zoning ordinance and add the shoreline protection overlay. When these elected board members approve the zoning amendment, the overlay will apply to new home construction and developments within the zone’s boundary.

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