Site Entitlements: A Vital Process for Project Development
Helping Utah Development through the Legal Approval Process
While investing in and developing a project can be incredibly rewarding, it can also be a risky prospect. Resources must be invested long before a return on those investments is realized, and the entitlement process is fraught with potential setbacks and even the risk of failure. Given these risks, our clients rely on us to anticipate, identify, and mitigate any potential problems that can occur.
In broader terms, site entitlement is required for any project that involves new construction or changing the use or function of a piece of property. The process starts with a review of a jurisdiction’s general plan—a comprehensive legal document that shapes and guides the physical development of a city. The general plan identifies things like land use, infrastructure systems, public facilities and services, finance, air quality, and public safety. By identifying land use categories and corresponding zones, the document serves as a guide for planning how land is used and how the jurisdiction allocates resources.
A general plan defines parts of a city to accommodate different uses for heavy/light manufacturing, multi-family, single family, commercial, agricultural, and other land uses. Development requirements often become complicated when transitioning from one land use to another. Single family residential zones, for example, often impose requirements for additional setbacks, landscape buffers, and reduced building heights on adjacent commercial zones. Our experienced architects, principal Curtis Miner among them, can perform a careful review of land use standards to reveal development opportunities and risks based on the development objectives of the client.
Curtis has helped clients successfully navigate the entitlement process. He regularly draws on his experience serving on the Pleasant Grove Planning Commission for four years, including one year as chair. “In many jurisdictions it is the planning commission who reviews and recommends a project to the city council,” Curtis explains. “Having an architect who can anticipate a commission member’s question and design a project in a way that takes potential challenges and turns them into opportunities has proven to be a great benefit to our clients.”
The Entitlement Process
Throughout the entitlement process, an architect can act as a designer, interpreter, collaborator, and leader. Working from the client’s vision and the zoning document, the CMA design team puts together a project idea and takes it to the local jurisdiction’s planning department. The proposal can include a conceptual design package as well as technical and environmental studies. The proposal is formally reviewed against existing zoning regulations, planning code, and local laws.
If approved, the project receives a final authorization from the city, and the project can move forward with securing the property and building permits.
Analyzing and planning for the various scenarios that could play out during entitlements can help a project team successfully navigate the risks inherent in the process and possibly even increase the value of the land. As part of our due diligence, CMA looks closely at adjacent land use requirements included in the zoning ordinance and other city regulations to make sure the development rights of one project do not adversely affect the rights of the bordering properties.
For example, when zoning changes from single-family residential to commercial, we ask ourselves how we can best protect single-family property owners from the noise of trucks loading and unloading in the early morning. In cases such as this one, we could recommend project-specific technical studies to evaluate the impact on residents and the local environment. A study may uncover problems that could jeopardize the project’s feasibility or delay the entitlement process for months or years before being resolved.
In most cities the city council will have the final vote to approve a project based on the recommendation of the planning commission. The council also receives input from local community members during public hearings. If residents perceive the project will impact the community negatively or fail to provide enough public benefit, the approval may be delayed, modified, or even stopped. “We encourage clients to be transparent,” Curtis shares. “Together we identify and familiarize ourselves with community groups and stakeholders to determine how we can best work together to achieve agreeable results.”
Trends and Changes
The mechanisms to control development are changing as the Wasatch Front continues to experience a tremendous amount of population growth. Cities in Utah and Salt Lake counties are rethinking their land use regulations in ways not previously seen. Curtis points to Highland City in Utah County. “Not too long ago, residents considered their city a bedroom community,” he recalls. “It was common to see bigger farm properties, very little commercial and no multi-family housing.” Now the city is rethinking how land is being used. City officials are asking themselves about density and rethinking land use to respond to both density and intensity of use.
Cities like Orem are shifting from maximum standards for development to minimum standards. After decades of embracing strict zoning rules, Orem is upzoning land to allow for more intense use. “Instead of asking what the maximum number of apartment units could be built on a lot, CMA now asks what the minimum number is,” he says.
Two lessons come to mind for Curtis: do your homework, and be cooperative. He encourages clients to understand code and zoning requirements. No one wants to buy a piece of property and then be caught by surprise while seeking approval for a project.
Being open-minded, upfront, and cooperative is also key. “There is little to be gained from trying to get away with something or manipulate the system,” says Curtis. Instead, he recommends that a client research and understand the needs, desires, and vision of the city and the community, then design a project that is mutually beneficial to all involved.
This collaborative approach was taken by one of our developer clients, employing it on a property adjacent to one owned by Pleasant Grove. Curtis knew the city planned to use the site as a regional park and detention pond and needed parking stalls to support park use. “By identifying and familiarizing ourselves with the city and their goals, we were able to work with staff and seek their support for our project,” he relates. The client can now develop more office space with more parking stalls. The parking will be used by building tenants during the day and by park visitors at night and on the weekends. The office space would normally have been about 20,000 square feet. Instead, the client can build a 36,000-square-foot building.
By hiring a firm with strong local experience and relationships like Curtis Miner Architecture, we can guide a project through the entitlement process cleanly and efficiently, allowing you to take your first step toward a fully-realized and successful development.