Planned Unit Developments & the Impact on Permitting

As the home building market continues to grow and large neighborhoods pop up throughout the United States, builders are looking for ways to streamline the time they spend dealing with zoning review boards and permits. One solution is the use of planned unit developments.

What is a Planned Unit Development?

The average consumer probably thinks of a planned unit development (or “PUD”) as a subdivision, housing development, or HOA. Planned unit developments can look like a neighborhood of single family homes, townhomes, or condos – or even a mini, self-contained city. Some PUDs offer mixed use facilities with retail or commercial buildings and common areas. PUDs can offer residents many perks such as playgrounds, tennis or basketball courts, swimming pools, and community meeting spaces. The Home Owners Association fees may cover services such as street clearing, landscaping, and security.

But a PUD is more than that. It’s actually a set of regulations that are designed to facilitate the development and construction process with the goal of helping both communities and developers.


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The History of Zoning and PUDs

To understand the how PUDs came about, it might be helpful to understand the basic history of zoning laws.

In 1926, the US Supreme Court in Ambler versus the Village of Euclid found a valid government interest in maintaining the character of a community or neighborhood. Their ruling stated that regulating the division of land use into a single purpose could help maintain that character. Over time, this ruling led to the rigid “Euclidean Zoning” approach, where land is divided into residential, commercial, and industrial purposes with specific set back requirements.

Unfortunately, it also had several unintended consequences.

The Euclidean approach has an uncompromising nature which can stifle creativity in developments and has resulted in unimaginative, cookie-cutter neighborhoods separated from shopping and employment areas – the “suburban sprawl” of “McMansions” clustered far away from urban centers.

Its inflexibility also results in a steady stream of requests for variances and even request for zoning changes, all of which are expensive, time consuming, and frustrating for developers, especially those attempting mixed use developments. For example, zoning might require a 12,000 square foot minimum parcel size, allowing for two to three parcels per acre. A developer wishing to reduce that parcel size within a neighborhood would need to request a variance for every single unit individually. Or, when an area is zoned residential but the developer wants to put a neighborhood restaurant inside the development, a zoning change might be necessary.

In 1952, planners in Virginia, hoping to alleviate these challenges, created the idea of a “planned unit development.” Instead of attending multiple public meetings to request individual variances, the developer could present their plans for the entire development all at once. Now, PUD laws exist in all 50 states, and the PUD is usually presented to the local Zoning Board and Planning Commission, who can approve all variances in relatively few meetings.

The Benefits of PUDs

In most communities, PUDs focus on improving the efficiencies of development, but they do not abandon the original purpose of zoning and building requirements. Rather, they focus on protecting the natural open space that may be changed or damaged as a result of development.

Consider, for example, that old Euclidean Zoning may require a 12,000 square foot minimum parcel size. That means two to three parcels per acre, all under a single use. A PUD can allow clustering on smaller areas so parcels can be shrunk to smaller sizes. Leftover areas are often maintained as open spaces such as parks. And, with mixed use structures, such as street-level retail with floors of condominiums above, the overall population density is maintained, but less car travel is required of residents.

For residents of a PUD, living there can feel like being in your own little city. The Home Owner Association (HOA) fees that go along with it can provide many amenities such as workout facilities and pools available exclusively to residents. You may live within walking distance of restaurants and shops. And the PUD may provide community services including landscaping that can raise your property value and improve your quality of life.

For developers, the benefits are even more clear. A PUD can alleviate the challenges posed by the strictness of planning commissions. They can allow for creative use of land and the opportunity to develop vibrant neighborhoods. And they may allow developments that wouldn’t be possible under Euclidian zoning.

However, they are not without their challenges. While they don’t have the same hassle as obtaining separate variances for each unit, the process of obtaining PUD approval can be very involved and time consuming, and each community may handle it differently. One option is to handle a PUD like a zoning amendment. When done this way, the legislative body makes the final approval. Another option is to address a PUD like a special use permit. When done this way, it is an administrative decision, and the final decision is made by the planning commission or zoning staff.

In either case, Express Permits has the experience and expertise to help guide you through the process. We can serve as your liaison to local governments, working with zoning commissions, planning commissions and council meetings on your behalf. Contact us to learn more!

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