July 01, 2015 Urban Lawyer

Recent Developments in Comprehensive Planning

by Edward J. Sullivan & Jennifer M. Bragar

Edward J. Sullivan has a B.A., St. John’s University (N.Y.), 1966; J.D., Willamette University, 1969; M.A. (History), Portland State University, 1973; Urban Studies Certificate, Portland State University, 1974; M.A. (Political Thought), University of Durham, 1998; Diploma in Law, University College, Oxford, 1984; LL.M., University College, London, 1978.

Jennifer M. Bragar has a B.A., University of California, Santa Cruz, 1998; J.D., Northwestern School of Law, Lewis and Clark College, 2007.

The authors are indebted to James D. O’Donnell, Lewis & Clark Law School 2015,
for the initial research in the preparation of this article.

I.  Introduction

This recent developments articles catalogues the role of the comprehensive plan in land use regulation.1 As it has for many years, this report examines three major traditions (or schools of thought) regarding the impact of the comprehensive plan. One school exemplifies the long-standing view that a separate plan is unnecessary — all that “counts” are the zoning regulations and map, which in effect become the plan. A second school, which may now comprise a majority of states, is that the plan is a factor (of greater or lesser degree) in evaluating the validity of land use regulations or actions. A third school consists of those states that by legislation or case law have elevated the plan to a quasi-constitutional role. The report then examines cases decided during this period that deal with plan amendments and interpretations.

The issue of the role of the plan arises in large part due to ambiguities in suggested enabling legislation proposed to the states by a “blue ribbon” committee appointed by then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover regarding proposals to have states enable planning and zoning. Two proposals emerged from the deliberations of the “blue ribbon” committee, the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (1924),2 adopted by three-quarters of the states and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act (1926),3 adopted by half the states.

The ambiguity arose due to Section 3 of the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act, which required that zoning be “in accordance with a comprehensive plan.”4 That term was not defined, nor was there mention of a “comprehensive plan” in the Standard City Planning Enabling Act. The issue of the necessity for a plan, as well as its impact, arose in cases in which Section 3 was cited. Courts, early on, almost uniformly overlooked the words of Section 3 and found the “comprehensive plan” requirement fulfilled by the zoning regulations and map, thus avoiding the uncomfortable result of invalidation of the zoning ordinance or actions on that account.5

In 1955, Professor Charles Haar raised the issue of the role of the plan in a now-famous article published in the Harvard Law Review.6 There, Haar suggested that Section 3 be given a meaning that a plan is recognized as a document separate from the zoning regulations and map and provides an outside reference point for zoning regulations and actions.7 Professor Daniel Mandelker made a similar suggestion in another seminal article about twenty years later.8

Partially in response to those articles and other criticism, courts began to reexamine the role of the plan, leading to the division of approaches that are set forth below. As will be seen, the traditional view that a plan is unnecessary and superfluous still survives.9 There is an emerging view, however, held by what might constitute a majority of the states, that the plan has at least some significance in evaluating the validity of land use regulations or actions.10 Finally, there is a solid minority of states that accord the plan a dispositive effect.11 In the last two views, the plan achieves significance and thus, when it is amended or interpreted, the plan achieves an importance well beyond that which was ascribed to it before 1970. Let us now review the cases that have arisen over the past year. 

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