Has government regulation of land development gone too far?

July 2006 » Columns » PERSPECTIVE
Governmental authorities, at just about all levels, may be stifling reasonable development of our nation's resources.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S.

The site is in a semi-residential municipality, not too far from where I live and practice engineering. Most, if not all, of the environmental and other concerns listed on the site plan should be addressed. Each item, taken individually and out of context, appears to be reasonable. But the listing of information required to seek and get approval for the project, when taken as a whole, may be excessive. For example, the various, local deliberative bodies assess the following information and restrictions in deciding whether to approve site development: 

  • building floor area proposed;
  • a "Bulk Requirements" listing of 88 types of use permitted or regulated, primarily by the municipality—including performance standards involving fire hazards, radioactivity, smoke, atmospheric pollutants, liquid and solid waste, vibration, noise, odors, glare, and traffic;
  • type of land use permitted;
  • free-standing sign requirements—five types are noted;
  • regulations regarding attached signs (different from free-standing signs), including the number, location, maximum dimension, and total area of all signs;
  • four standards describing flag poles—only one is permitted with only one flag flown and only specified types of flags (U.S., state, county, or foreign country), the maximum height is 40 feet or 5 feet above the principal building, whichever is less;
  • buffers for residential and non-residential areas listing visual separation requirements;
  • environmental protection standards listing flood damage prevention, potable water protection, well monitoring, mining specifications, stormwater management rules, and control rate of runoff specifications;
  • street grades, curb return radii, sight easements, street and pavement material, and pavement thickness design standards;
  • sidewalk specifications, including widths, required illumination levels, maximum light fixture heights, maximum lawn gradients, embankment slope requirements, and minimum gradients;
  • detailed loading dock standards;
  • parking saturation and specifications regarding the type of angle parking permitted;
  • minimum two-way and one-way driveway widths, minimum widths for 90-degree parking, parking lot gradients, and spacing data for the handicapped; and
  • landscaping requirements, including minimum tree and shrub size and parking lot shade tree density—at least one tree per 25 parking spaces is required.

Other required data and restrictions include on-line septic disposal rules, conservation area(s), permitted shoreline development (if applicable), stream encroachment rules, wetlands data, seasonal high water data, soil removal specifications, and permitted solid waste collection and disposal details. Another listing on the same cover sheet spelled out many additional requirements, such as a saturation parking plan, pursuant to minimum parking provision requirements; architectural renderings, including side and rear elevations; and a statement regarding sanitary sewage volumes permitted.

Also, recycling must comply with local requirements (Does this need to be stated?), all utilities must be underground, and curbing must be made of Belgian block or concrete.

Additionally, a stormwater drainage report must be provided, groundwater monitoring wells are required, and a minimum distance of 25 feet from wetlands must be maintained. Wetlands must be protected prior to construction with snow fences and filter fabrics.

  • The following variances and waivers also are listed:

    the scale of the drawings will be 1/16 inch, although in this case, the permitted scale is 1/8 inch scale;
  • the plan meets Americans with Disabilities Act requirements that differ from the municipal requirements; and
  • the ordinance requires 9- by 20-foot parking space site, but a 9- by 18-foot size is provided to reduce impervious area and permit more landscaping area.

I have not included all of the requirements or data shown on this one sheet, but you get the idea. One is titled "Indiana Bat Restrictions," banning tree removal during the breeding season for that endangered species, since the site is habitat for the Indiana bat.

To summarize, local control of medium to large commercial projects is good for the environment, as well as for the people who live near them. But sometimes this leads to governmental overkill.

The project discussed here may be such an example.

As an aside, since I sometimes review projects such as this one in my consulting practice, perhaps I should shut up, do my reviewing, and just get paid for the work. But maybe less bureaucratic overkill is necessary to ensure a high quality of life in and around acreage that is being developed.

Governmental regulation of land development projects probably has not gone too far. But perhaps detailing all of the precautions that must be taken should be left to the design professionals who have the responsibility—and expertise—to protect the environment, rather than to bureaucrats trying to anticipate all possible variations on the theme of land development.

Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 1-201-441-9719; or e-mail him at pagan@cenews.com.


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