Planner’s Toolbox: Comprehensive planning revisited

Communities can have an influence on the development of their community through the adoption of a comprehensive plan. 

by Larry M. Weil, West Fargo, North Dakota

A number of years ago, I wrote much of this article for publication in The Western Planner. Over the past couple of years there has been a renewed interest in community planning in North Dakota due to a number of issues facing communities. Many communities are not sure what to do or where to turn. They have many questions relating to planning and are desirous of having more to say about what is happening to their community. I thought it would be appropriate to revisit this article and provide some additional insights.

The importance of communities adopting a community plan, as well as regularly reviewing and updating their plan, cannot be over-emphasized. The community plan provides the legal basis for a community to engage in land use regulation. Also, the community plan expresses a community’s vision for the foreseeable future. Additionally, the plan may provide implementation strategies which projects what short-term action plans will be undertaken to help accomplish the community vision. The plan provides valuable information to the public on the community’s development policy and helps the staff, appointed and elected officials in the development review process.

Community plan terminology may be somewhat confusing to many as terms such as master plan, comprehensive plan, and general plan are frequently utilized. Do these terms mean the same thing, or do they refer to different types of plans? If one examines the evolution of plan development historically, master plans have evolved into general plans and/or comprehensive plans. According to William I. Goodman in his book Principles and Practice of Urban Planning, in the late 1920s consultants were generally employed by planning commissions to prepare a “Master Plan” which was anticipated to include sections on streets, transit and transportation, parks and recreation, civic appearance, and zoning (Goodman, 1968 pg. 24).

In the 1960s T. J. Kent, Jr. was a leading proponent of the comprehensive planning concept in what he termed “The General Plan” which was the “official statement of a municipal legislative body which sets forth its major policies concerning desirable future physical development” (Goodman, pg. 349). Goodman indicates that the term “general plan” and “comprehensive plan” are used interchangeably, and the term “city plan” is also used by communities. However, the term “master plan” was no longer respected by planners because of misuse in the past to describe plans which were not general and comprehensive, i.e. “master street plan” or “master park plan” (Goodman, pg. 349). A community plan is to be comprehensive, general and long range (Goodman, pg. 349).

The state establishes enabling legislation which provides for community planning and the framework, or required elements for the plan. The enabling legislation may require, as the North Dakota Century Code does, that the plan establishes “explicit goals, objectives, policies and standards of the jurisdiction to guide public and private development within its control.” Goals, objectives and policies are the heart of the plan which provides the legal basis for approving or denying development applications. The plan will generally focus on physical development aspects such as land use, transportation system, parks and open space, and public facilities. Often additional emphasis is given in the plan for the environment, affordable housing, economic development, architectural and site design characteristics, and other significant community issues.

The complete plan may represent the vision of the community. However, some plans will contain a specific section that outlines the vision of the community through statements and/or visual images. Vision statements provide insight into the current values of the community, articulate a vision for how the city sees itself in the future, and outline a policy framework for on-going planning efforts.

The plan should provide implementation strategies to be utilized to ensure that the vision of the community can be accomplished. The strategies take full advantage of the regulatory and fiscal tools available to the community such as the official development controls, capital improvements program and other community programs and actions. Actions to correct deficiencies in the development codes may be spelled out, as well as adoption of new ordinances. Project-specific strategies might be suggested to address issues identified in the plan. By providing implementation strategies, one can evaluate from time to time how much progress is being made.

The longevity of a community plan is a common question of many communities. A number of communities in North Dakota had a plan developed in the 1970s and have had little change to the community until recently. The Department of Housing and Urban Development had planning funds available then which were accessed by communities who had consultants develop their community plan. Unfortunately many of the communities did not have the knowledge or capacity to implement their plans together with land use controls, and eventually those plans found places on a shelf. Now with increased development pressure brought on by energy development in the state, communities are taking their plans off the shelf and wondering if their plans are still relevant and what their next steps might be.
The relevancy of a community plan has much to do with the vision of the community, but may also be impacted by changes in state statutes. Many things might influence the community’s vision such as growth or the lack of growth, deterioration of buildings and infrastructure, availability of housing, changes in the makeup of the citizens, i.e. aging population or changes in ethnic groups, transportation systems, environmental conditions, changes in technology, inadequate park facilities, or any number of other things.

Shared community values and a shared vision for the community should be expressed within the community plan. If the values and vision of the community have changed, it is time to refine or redo a community plan. At times a community’s values and vision may not change for ten or 15 years. On the other hand, the values and vision may change significantly within a five year period. Periodic evaluation of the plan goals, objectives, policies and implementation strategies together with community feedback should provide essential information to determine if the time is right to update the plan.

Understanding the values and vision of a community, greatly enhances the ability to achieve the vision through the goals, objectives, policies and implementation strategies expressed in the plan. Also, having the knowledge or capacity to implement the plan and other land use controls is essential. If the community does not have adequate or knowledgeable staff, other resources are available. Most states have professional planning associations whose mission is not only to promote the interchange of thoughts among those engaged and interested in planning, but also to assist in furthering public understanding of the objectives and functions of the planning process. Some states have a department charged to assist or guide communities in planning functions. There may be regional planning agencies that can assist communities. Also, there are many consulting firms with professional planners who can assist the community.

Communities can have an influence on the development of their community through the adoption of a comprehensive plan. The vision of the community is expressed in vision statements and/or within the goals, objectives and policies of the comprehensive plan. It is essential for a community to have the knowledge or capacity to implement the plan and other land use controls.


Larry Weil is the Director of Planning and Community Development at City of West Fargo, North Dakota. He serves on the Western Planning Resources Board.

Published in the July/August 2014 Issue

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