Transit Oriented Development - Development Oriented Transit

Transit Oriented Development – Development Oriented Transit

As communities increasingly seek to strengthen the viability of their traditional downtowns, a new awareness of the value of commuter rail service and stations has emerged. Formerly viewed as the sole responsibility of the operating entities, many towns have begun to view their commuter rail assets as downtown redevelopment engines.

Over the last decade, this new awareness termed -- Transit Oriented Development (TOD) by the New Urbanism Movement has been used to describe a number of related activities-- principally designed to encourage residential and commercial development near transit facilities.

More recently, planners have realized that not every station area redevelopment project fits completely under the TOD designation. A new operational project category inversely termed-- Development Oriented Transit (DOT) takes a more direct approach to achieving the same objective-- beneficial development spurred by fixed rail-transit assets.

In both cases, whether TOD or DOT, community vision is essential. This includes a clear understanding of local values regarding community character, aesthetics and of course, business attraction and retention. Consistent with the "Transit Village" principles of the New Urbanism, both approaches emphasize improved public safety, pedestrian and bike access, and shopping opportunities for commuters.

The difference lies in the project role taken by a sponsoring community. In a TOD effort, it is the developers who refocus a renewed interest or “orientation” towards transit as a previously overlooked or less than lucrative business opportunity. Aware of the market potential of these sites, developers typically provide the financial impetus, the development pressure and the investment appeals to the public agencies. Hence, a typical TOD projects requires a local community to act as a facilitator between related interests such as the rail operator, landowners, commuters, merchants, and developers. With an eye towards beneficial improvement-- an overarching goal for both the public and private sectors, the community’s primary objective is to assist, motivate, and support activities that enhance the attractiveness of its transit assets. In this model, initial public sector investment centered on the immediate station area is critical, but from that point onward to implementation, the principal drivers of redevelopment come from the private sector.

With some exceptions, this TOD pattern most often occurs in turn-of-the-century suburbs (Oak Park, Tinley Park) and large satellite towns (Aurora, Joliet) with traditional historic town centers or established industrial service sites along existing commuter rail lines. We call these traditional TOD type cases "rail stations in search of a community".

Conversely, with DOT type projects, the communities are primarily-- project protagonists. We call these DOT types "communities in search of a rail station"--because of their ability to spur development. Most often driven by Baby Boom Auto Oriented Suburbs and Super Towns or Edge Cities (Naperville, Orland, Schaumburg), they are also attractive strategies for economically depressed communities. Nonetheless, most often associated with greenfield expansion or new rail lines-- DOTs require substantial public sector investment of local, state and federal funds.

There are several examples in the region. The proposed southeast commuter rail line along the Illinois Indiana border is one example, where the transit improvement is oriented towards complimentary development. Some of the communities have already begun initial land acquisition in preparation for a major new rail line. In Manhattan, Illinois the village board recently passed an ordinance to borrow $6.5 million for new water and sewer projects in addition to ongoing infrastructure improvements--in anticipation of expected community development concurrent with Metra's Southwest Service Expansion. The funds would be recaptured by the village as developers pay fees.

In many areas, TOD neighborhoods are older communities in need of redevelopment. TOD tools can be especially effective in urban redevelopment. And in general, these areas do not redevelop easily on their own - governmental leadership and incentives are required.

Through its Regional Technical Assistance Program (RTAP), the Northeastern Illinois Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) has been a leader in TOD, typically providing 50% of the funding for the TOD study, with local government providing the balance. The program encourages communities to undertake a balanced, coordinated and integrated approach to community and transportation planning. This is accomplished, in part, through technical and financial assistance provided by the RTA to the various levels of local governments. A hallmark of the program is its emphasis on providing communities with the tools to identify their vision and a plan to attain it. The TOD Planning process itself is similar to traditional downtown redevelopment planning efforts. The process includes the assessment of the existing situation, extensive citizen participation, and an analysis of how much increased density is acceptable and desirable. An aggressive implementation effort follows the completion of the TOD study, with property acquisition, demolition, and redevelopment.

Projects in the program fall into four general categories; Station Area Planning Studies, County Transit Plans, Corridor Studies, and Technology Initiatives. Station Area Planning projects have been designed to address local conditions and meet varying community objectives. For example, the Olympia Fields and University Park station areas are located in Greenfield sites, and accordingly, the studies produced plans to guide new development in their station areas. Morton Grove and Hazel Crest, alternatively, developed plans to promote and direct redevelopment of their station areas. Regardless of the location, the basic tenets of transit supportive development, mixed uses, higher densities, and pedestrian friendly environments are encouraged, often resulting in complimentary improvements and enhancements to the community’s transit facilities.

A typical successful RTA funded TOD effort was undertaken by the Village of Tinley. The Village hired the Chicago-based planning and design firm of Camiros, Ltd. to lead a community planning process that resulted in recommendations to enhance the appearance and viability of the "Old Town" area along Oak Park Avenue, adjacent to the Metra station, and for the new METRA station two miles from the Oak Park Station.

The older downtown area of Tinley Park had deteriorated as new commercial areas developed on main State highways away from the historic business district. This deterioration caused considerable concern among residents and local officials. Mayor Zabrocki noted that "this historic Oak Park Avenue area is the soul of the community." The early history and self image of the community was tied to the historic area. Trustee Pat Rea said, "don't rebuild it the way it was, rebuild it the way it should have been built."

The new station area was a clear canvas, with little development close to the new station. The Village zoned and approved a commercial center adjacent to the station. The Village constructed bike paths to the station. The Village also acquired a large parcel of land next to the station, and envisions an aggressive improvement effort to construct buildings that will support and enhance transit access. The Village is constructing a new public library adjacent to the new station.

Higher density is usually desirable in TOD development or redevelopment. Higher densities increase transit ridership that helps to justify frequent service. It also can create active street life and commercial activities, such as convenience stores, restaurants and coffee shops, within convenient walking distance of homes and worksites.

TOD also includes many other improvements, including enhanced landscaping, lighting, facade improvements, and parking enhancements. The development of small parks and plazas, fountains, sculpture, and attractive focal points are an attractive amenity for TOD. The removal of unsightly old industrial uses, and the redevelopment of this land into transit oriented uses is also a fundamental part of the process.

A synergistic use that has developed in Tinley Park are restaurants. Five new restaurants have opened or expanded since the initial TOD plan was developed, in part because of the improvements and "sizzle" engendered by the TOD improvements. Minimal new parking for these restaurants is needed, since they peak in the evening after the commuters have returned home. So the large parking lots around the train station are not wasted in the evenings but have a second use.

Like all planning efforts, implementation is the key. A colorful plan that is not implemented is simply attractive wall paper. A key to successful implementation is the involvement of the decision makers. The Village government and local businessmen have to be convinced to make the investments necessary to implement the plan.

Transit Oriented Development can be an effective tool to rebuild an older transit community while increasing the use of transit.

About the Authors

Craig Harlan Hullinger AICP has 30 years of experience in planning economic development. He has developed numerous economic development strategies and redevelopment projects. He can be contacted at 309 634 5557, E-mail

John De Laurentis is the Planning Director of the Northeastern Illinois Regional Transportation Authority. He can be reached at 312 913 3237, Email at,
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Illinois Chapter Leads Tornado Recovery Plan Charrette

The American Planning Association has published an article about the Utica Planning Charette on their Web Site. You may find the link to it at the top of this page: The article is shown below.

Illinois Chapter Leads Tornado Recovery Plan Charrette

By Grace Bazylewski and Craig Harlan Hullinger, AICP

The Village of North Utica, Illinois was hit by a tornado on April 20, 2004, that killed nine people and destroyed the north end of the historic village. The Village Hall, Township Hall, Ambulance Building, and 56 other homes and structures were destroyed.

The village, FEMA, and other governments and citizens produced the Utica United Recovery Plan, a document that called for the expenditure of about $20 million dollars to restore the town and to construct a number of improvements to the community. Some of the major improvements called for were the rerouting of a state highway through the downtown, the removal of the downtown from a floodplain, the enhancement of the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal, improvements to the local economy and tourism, and the reconstruction and beautification of the historic town.

The Pro Bono Committee of the American Planning Association's Illinois Chapter led a planning charrette to assist the citizens in developing the plan. The committee has helped numerous communities over the last eight years on a variety of issues and planning programs. A "charrette" is a design session held over a short time period and designed to produce quick results. Assisted by the Illinois Association of Landscape Architects, the Pro Bono Committee led a five-hour charrette on September 25, 2004.

The charrette was a success.

About 110 people attended the event that began at the fire station directly across from the area destroyed by the tornado. Mayor Fred Esmond introduced the participants, who gave a short introduction to the town, the disaster, and the recovery plan. Smaller groups were created for walking tours of the town, then those groups were broken down into 10-person teams charged with researching and expanding the recovery plan findings and recommendations.

The findings of each group were presented to the larger group at the end of the session. These findings will be incorporated into the downtown improvement plan, tourism plan, and economic development strategy currently under development by the North Central Illinois Council of Governments. Grants have been or will be provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Illinois Emergency Management Agency, Economic Develoment Administration, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Charette also served as the initial public participation portion of the planning program. Work of the teams included downtown improvement plan physical improvements, facade improvement recommendations, economic development strategy, tourism development marketing work, park improvements, etc. Interesting recommendations included the proposed development of the Illini Native American Village, riverfront parks, a marina, the development of a quarry into a lake, and numerous other positive ideas and proposals for the community.

Long term success and implementation of the projects identified in the charrette depend on the local participants. Local government and individuals must now sort out proposals and decide which ones to implement. Local leaders will have to take ownership of the plan, and develop a consensus to successfully implement it.

Handling Complaints About Zoning Enforcement

Charles Eckenstahler, AICP and Craig Hullinger, AICP

It is 8:30 a.m. Monday morning. You sit down with your morning cup of ambition. The phone rings. “You the planner? The Mayor told me I should talk to you. I came home from work on Friday and found a red note on my new garden shed saying I can’t use it and it must be moved. They delivered it Friday and put it right where I told them to, on the back of the lot near my fence. Where you do get off saying I need to get a building permit and I have to move it? You can’t tell me what I can do on my land. What is this, Communist Russia? I have a lot of clout with the Mayor and the Board, and I don’t have to take this harassment. If you can’t straighten this out, I’m going to my lawyer and take you to court!”

Complaints about zoning enforcement actions are a part of the daily administration of the zoning ordinance. Every zoning administrator and some Plan Commissioners and elected officials will be faced with similar irate phone calls. A goal of good zoning administration is to resolve the matter so that the citizen is fairly treated and understands the reasons for the zoning decision. This article provides guidelines to remember when handling the irate complainant.


1. Listen
According to zoning administrators, the most important thing to remember when faced with an irate resident is to let them talk. Usually they are upset that someone has told then they did something wrong and they have to follow certain rules concerning what they can do on their property. According to Frank Zolp, Zoning and Code Enforcement Officer in Sauk Village, “it is best to let the complainant vent their frustration and get every thing off their chest. Usually, after they calm down we can begin the process of explaining the ordinance regulations and reasons they were enacted.”

2. Remain Neutral
We recommend remaining neutral and not take sides between the zoning inspector and the complainant. The complainant will immediately seek to establish that the zoning inspector is wrong and that the provision of the ordinance does not apply to them. At this stage of the process, it is better to let the resident continue to talk rather than begin to defend or debate the intent of the ordinance or its application to the situation.

You need to make sure that your zoning inspector understands your actions when listening to a complaint. You must be fair to the citizen, and at the same time be fair to your inspector. You trust your inspector to make fair and accurate field inspections. You should not undercut your inspector. But you must also give fair consideration to the citizen.

3. Obtain Information
In this stage of the discussion, ask questions to obtain information. Some possible questions might include: How big is the shed? Where was it purchased? How did you determine where you want the shed on your property? Did you let your neighbors know you were putting a shed in this location? Did you know that a permit was needed? Did you talk with anyone at the Village Hall? Were you aware the Village regulates the location of all buildings? Are you aware that sometime neighbors object to the location of a shed along their backyard property line? Could the shed block a drainage path? Did you know placement of a shed in a side yard is sometimes a problem for fire trucks reaching a home?

The purpose of asking question is to gather information. It also provides the opportunity to give the resident some information in a nonthreatening manner.

4. Schedule an On-Site Meeting with the Complainant
The most important action to take is to meet with the resident and view the situation. This does several things. It brings the resident face-to-face with someone who intends to resolve the problem and it allows for a second visual inspection of the situation. According to Zolp, “it is easy for someone who is upset to take out their frustrations by phone since they don’t see who you are. We like to have the face-to-face discussion and to personally view the situation. We find that the level of frustration lessens when we meet face-to-face and show interest in resolving the problem.”

It is usually a good idea to have the zoning inspector at the meeting with the citizen. You can then quickly understand the viewpoint of both the inspector and the citizen.

5. Do Background Homework
Before the face-to-face meeting, Zolp recommends that facts be gathered. Which inspector issued the ticket? Did a neighbor file a complaint? What section of the ordinance is violated? What are the exact specifications required for the placement of storage shed in the rear yard? What are the required fees? Will there be a penalty fine? Does the installation require an inspection? What process would be required to seek a variance or special use permit allowing the installation of the shed? Has special permission been granted for similar installations in the past? Are there many similar sheds on similar locations in the neighborhood?

This information will be necessary for discussion with the resident and to offer options to resolve the violation.

6. Confirm the Facts - Omission vs. Commission
Upon completion of the face-to-face meeting, Zolp suggests a meeting be held with the zoning officer who issued the notice of violation. Based on the visual inspection of the situation, and photographs of the situation all facts should be confirmed including permit requirements, location/set back specifications established by Village ordinance, and information about the current situation, ie: where the shed is currently located, dimensions of the shed, distance from property lines etc.

Was the resident simply ignorant of Village regulations and did not realize that the Village regulated sheds? A homeowner can be given more leeway than a builder or developer who routinely ignores permit requirements.

Or did the owner know that the Village ordinance regulated sheds, and chose to ignore the regulations, hoping that it would not be noticed? As one well know developer often says, “it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.” You obviously treat a repeat offender who is in the building trades differently than a homeowner who may not have realized a permit was required.

7. Seek a Remedy - Identify Options
Zolp notes the “Village really wants the property owner to use his property in a way that pleases the homeowner. In a situation like this we would first try to identify a solution to move the shed to a spot where it would comply with the ordinance. If the resident did not know we regulate the location of sheds and was willing to move it we would likely dismiss the violation. However, if the resident willfully disregarded the ordinance we would recommend enforcement and penalties.”

Zolp added that “if the applicant was not willing to comply with the terms of the ordinance, seek special permission or willfully disregarded the provisions of the ordinance, we would likely make a formal complaint and quickly move the matter to civil court for resolution.”

You should also inform the citizen of his right to appeal your decision to the zoning board of appeals. The citizen should understand that he can appeal above your decision. This provides the citizen a path above you other than complaining to the elected officials or taking the matter to court.

8. Establish a Compliance Date
During the meeting with the resident, Zolp recommends that a date for the resolution of the matter be targeted and acknowledged. The date will in part be determined by the action to resolve the matter. Moving the shed might require the scheduling of a contractor and a two week compliance period may be sufficient. Filing a request for a variance or special use permit may require 30-90 days to complete. Taking action in court may require a longer period. Zolp notes “that regardless of the method used to resolve the violation, a date must be set for compliance. Progress must be monitored and if the resident cannot resolve the complaint within the schedule, legal action should be initiated. The resident should also be prohibited from using the shed while the matter is being resolved, so as to not give the impression to the resident or others that the Village is allowing use of the shed in violation of the ordinance.”

9. Reduce Everything to Writing
Immediately upon receipt of the first phone call, written records of all discussion actions and reasons for decision should be made. Photographs showing the location of the shed and dimensions to property lines and other important features should be taken to document the current situation. Periodic inspections with written findings should be made until the issue is resolved. Formal correspondence to the resident should be made identifying the violation, the agreed on resolution and expected compliance dates agreed-on during any face-to-face discussions.

10. Establish Permanent Records
A zoning decision made today establishes a decision which will be referred to in the future. Each decision should be documented including the rationale of any solution which is offered and accepted by the resident. Every unique circumstance should be identified and an explanation established why permission was granted due to the unique circumstance. Decisions made today set precedent for decisions to be made in the future. If you do not want that precedent set then you should identify in writing why the decision made today is unique, and will not be routinely approved in the future.

Zoning enforcement is often a thankless job. While every community wishes to allow residents freedom to use their property as they wish, it is necessary to restrict some activities to protect the health, welfare and safety of the public. Most residents will comply with ordinance provisions when they are aware of the reason behind the ordinance and the specifications. Many residents do not realize that minor building activity such as the construction of a shed requires permits and inspections. A majority of the time gaining compliance simply requires educating the resident and helping find a solution within a reasonable time period.

However, zoning administration does require enforcement. Usually this occurs where a resident refuses to comply, even after attempts to find compliance solution have been made by zoning enforcement staff. In these situations legal action is required to gain compliance. Documentation of the process of meeting and working with the resident to resolve the issue will help demonstrate to the court that every effort was expended by the Village to gain compliance. Proper documentation of the case and proof that the Village acted fairly provide the rationale for a court ordered compliance solution.

About the Authors
Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP, is the owner of Public Consulting Team, a Benton Harbor, Michigan planning consulting firm which has consulted with the Villages of Beecher, Sauk Village, Glenwood and Homewood as their consulting planner. He holds two Masters’ Degrees, one from Governors State University and the other from the University of Notre Dame. He is an active writer, having more than 150 articles published on various economic development, land use planning and real estate development topics. He can be contacted at 219-879-1012, or E-mail at

Craig Harlan Hullinger, AICP, is the President of Planning Development Services. He has served as the Will County Director of Land Use and Planning where he supervised planning, zoning, solid waste, engineering, and building functions. He is currently working with the Villages of Minooka, Tinley Park, Mokena, Munster, IN, the Eastern Will County Regional Council, and as an expert witness. Craig has a BA Degree in Public Administration, a Master’s Degree in Environmental Planning.. Contact him at 708-532-8991,, or email at

Do We Have a Smart Growth Plan?



Charles Eckenstahler, AICP, Craig Hullinger, AICP and Dr. Larrry McCellan

Every local official in Illinois is faced with the question of determining whether their local government Comprehensive Plan is a Smart Growth Plan. With the growing concern about urban sprawl, agriculture preservation, need for greater open space and environmental concerns, local officials are frequently called upon to reexamine their comprehensive plan to determine if the plan represents Smart Growth.

Unfortunately for local officials, Smart Growth is an elusive concept. Presently there is no consensus of what Smart Growth is. There is no legislation, which sets forth a prescription of required contents for a Smart Growth plan. There are no standards of professional planning practice, which establish the contents for a Smart Growth plan.

Smart Growth means many things to many people. To some, Smart Growth is nothing more than good planning practices historically used to prepare most of today’s current Comprehensive Plans. Others, view Smart Growth as a platform for advancing special purpose planning objectives, including agriculture land preservation, stopping urban sprawl development patterns, demanding the acquisition of more open space, or stopping the construction and expansion of roadways.

For local officials called upon to justify whether they’re Comprehensive Plan is a Smart Growth Plan, there is little, if any, tools to help in making a decision.

The Eastern Will County Regional Council, representing Beecher, Peotone, Monee, University Park, Park Forest, surrounding townships and Will and Kankakee counties decided to respond to the problem facing local officials. In September the Council adopted the first Smart Growth Strategy in Illinois.

The council members determined their Regional Development Strategy, which is a composite plan of the member local governments within eastern Will and northern Kankakee counties, demonstrates Smart Growth. This conclusion was drawn from research identifying specific planning practices that should be included in a Smart Growth plan and how well local government officials felt the regional development plan fulfilled these planning principles.

According to Ken Kramer Chair of the Council and a Park Forest Trustee, “The Council wanted to test whether our plan truly represented Smart Growth concepts. We wanted to identify how we can further Smart Growth principles on a regional and local government basis.

What we found is that we rated ourselves at about 60% overall based on 70 Smart Growth planning principles addressing planning capacity, urban form, infrastructure, development review procedures and fiscal policies. We identified 11 topics that we believe must be discussed by local officials if we are to advance Smart Growth planning in Eastern Will County.

Our self-evaluation process established benchmark values that we can be to measure progress toward Smart Growth in the future.”

The pressing problem for Smart Growth in Illinois is who will make the decision whether a Comprehensive Plan fulfills Smart Growth principles.

_____ Benson, Mayor of the Village of Peotone who sits on several of the Governors Sustainable Growth Task Force expresses the concern of many local officials. “The most common model of Smart Growth relays heavily on a hierarchy of approvals with a state body holding ultimate authority. We in eastern Will County believe the traditional power granted to local governments to determine future land use is the proper means to implement Smart Growth. Our strategy that established measurement criteria and which we, local elected and appointed officials, used to evaluate our plan is preferable to having an outside consultant, planning agency, or state body determine compliance with Smart Growth principles.”

Based on the process employed by the Eastern Will County Regional Council, it is likely that all Comprehensive Plans prepared over the past 20 years address Smart Growth planning principles. It is also highly probable the Comprehensive Plan should be evaluated in terms of Smart Growth principles to identify how well the plan addresses each principle. The evaluation will allow local elected and appointed officials to determine if it is necessary to amend the plan to strengthen responses to certain Smart Growth planning concepts.

Alicia Hanlon, Administrator of the Eastern Will County Regional Council, believes the system developed by the Council can be used by other communities to determine how well their Comprehensive Plan conforms with Smart Growth principles. “We directed our consultants to develop a self evaluation system for use by our local elected and appointed officials. We asked them to provide a process which would allow self examination in the future to determine whether we made progress in implementing Smart Growth concepts with the Comprehensive Planning process of the region and local governments.

We would encourage other comminutes to do the same, they can develop criteria and establish a scoring system which tabulates the opinions of a large number of elected and appointed officials concerning how well the Comprehensive Plan conforms to each specific planning principle.

In the near future we hope to schedule a training session for interested parties who would like to use the process developed by the Council for determining if their Comprehensive Plan conforms with Smart Growth participles.”

About the Authors

Chuck Eckenstahler, Craig Hullinger and Dr. Larry McCellan served as the consulting team for the Eastern Will County Smart Growth Strategy.

Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP, is the owner of Public Consulting Team, a Benton Harbor, Michigan planning consulting firm that has consulted with the Villages of Beecher, Sauk Village, Glenwood and Homewood as their consulting planner. He holds two Masters Degrees, one from Governors State University and the other from the University of Notre Dame. He is an active writer, having more than 150 articles published on various economic development, land use planning and real estate development topics. He can be contacted at 219-879-1012, or E-mail at

Craig Harlan Hullinger, AICP, is the President of Planning Development Services. He has served as the Will County Director of Land Use and Planning where he supervised planning, zoning, solid waste, engineering, and building functions. He is currently working with the Villages of Minooka, Tinley Park, Mokena, Munster, IN, the Eastern Will County Regional Council, and as an expert witness. Craig has a BA Degree in Public Administration, a Masters Degree in Environmental Planning. Contact him at 708-532-8991,, or

Position Your Project for Quick Municipal Approval

Craig Hullinger AICP and Chuck Eckenstahler AICP

It is inevitable that proposed new development will meet stiff opposition in the approval process. In the minds of many people, any new development will impact everything from traffic on existing roads to consuming valued open space. Some Plan Commission meetings resemble open warfare between developers and concerned citizens with the Plan Commission acting as reluctant referees. Neither the applicant nor the Plan Commissioner wishes to participate in these angry and unproductive meetings.

With an understanding that open warfare can erupt at any time, what’s a Plan Commission to do? Whether it is a new project or a routine decision before the Plan Commission (or zoning board), we recommend the municipality advise (or preferably require) the applicant to prepare for the public presentation and hearing process. It pays for the applicant to be well prepared, and to approach the community with a willingness to compromise.

It is a duty of a good municipal planning staff to advise the applicant concerning the preparation of the application and public presentation procedures. These procedures vary from community to community. Both the individual who has never processed a request before the Plan Commission and the most experienced developers appreciate this “coaching” because it allows then to prepare and present their request in the “best possible light.”

This coaching also helps the Plan Commission, since it informs the applicant of the process of the meeting and the type of information which the Plan Commission desires to see publically presented. It gives the applicant time to organize a public presentation including expert presentations and display drawings to illustrate important elements of their proposal.

Below is a list of ten guidelines we give to applicants to help them “increase the odds” of making a winning presentation before the Plan Commission:

1. Do Your Homework
Too often applicants before the Plan Commission do not come prepared and “ad-lib” responses to pointed questions put forth by citizens during the public hearing. We recommend to applicants that they attend meetings to see how the Plan Commission works and to gain an understanding of the process and type of questions raised by citizens and the members.

We urge all applicants to prepare for the meeting and come ready to answer questions. We also suggest that large “display-sized” drawing and maps be prepared and used to illustrate the key points of the applicants request.

2. Understand the Communities Growth Policies
Every community views growth and development differently. Some welcome new development while others are somewhat more particular and support only certain types of new development. We recommend applicants take time to review the Comprehensive Plan and discuss their proposal with local officials. These discussions usually identify whether the proposal conforms with the general intent of the Comprehensive Plan and “unwritten” desires of the Plan Commission and community.

The closer the proposal conforms to the “written and unwritten” growth policies, the greater likelihood of acceptance of the proposal. Crafting a development proposal which conforms to the intent of the community growth policies, obviously, will receive a more favorable consideration than one which doesn’t.

3. Identify How the Project Will Benefit The Community
In the fiscally constrained local governmental financial environment of today, many local governments examine the financial merits of every new development proposal. They assess whether the cost for municipal services and infrastructure will exceed the tax revenue generated by the real estate property, sales and income taxes the community will receive as a result of the new development.

We suggest that applicants consider having a cost-benefit analysis completed to test whether the proposed development will pay “its fair share” of costs. In cases where the development does not meet local financial obligations, we encourage the developer to reconsider the type of development proposed or to evaluate the possibility of donations to off-set potential revenue losses.

4. Go The Extra Mile Attitude
Gaining approval of a new development today is often a negotiation process. Developers, realizing that communities do not have to approve a request, spend more money and time in the preparation of the application for approval. We see more attention to the growth policies of the communities being given by the developers and a greater sensitivity to meeting the fiscal needs of the community than in the past. Applicants who are ready to “go this additional mile” are received with enthusiasm and have the greatest chance to secure approvals.

5. Know Your Legal Position
Development is governed by number of local ordinances, state laws and regulations. In addition there can be private restrictions in the form of deed restrictions, easements and “clouded” ownership.
Applications sometimes are submitted without completing research of permits and restrictions which may alter the development proposal when discovered.

We recommend that property title research be completed and that applications for “curb cuts,” water/sewer connections, storm water systems, floodplain alteration, and wetland permits be submitted as needed, as early as possible in the concept development process. This knowledge assures that required permits can be obtained and no legal objection to the development of the proposed concept will be encountered, once presented to the Plan Commission.

We also recommend applicants know the rules prescribed by the zoning ordinance for the subject property. This knowledge gives a base line density determination for the property and a measurement tool for any negotiated changes.

6. Don’t Overlook The Opportunity For Innovation
Innovative planning techniques such as traditional neighborhood development, zero lot line development, transit orientated development, cluster development and the like are being discussed as means to achieve Smart Growth and reduce “urban sprawl.” We encourage developers to recognize that communities are willing to consider innovative development, sometimes of higher density with less development costs, where a carefully crafted development plan fulfill local community development goals. Obviously, in cases where an application supports a desired innovative development concept, the application approval process is likely to be easier.

7. Be Willing To Scale Back
Developers seek to maximize their return on investment in land, often seeking to build the greatest number of housing units (or other buildings) as permitted by the zoning ordinance. We recommend applicants take a “hard look” at the development opportunity in light of the community plan and unwritten development polices before finalizing any concept plan for a specific project. Proposing maximum density of development for a site viewed as a lower density development site by the Plan Commission, will almost always give rise to lengthy debate and review.

8. Trade Density For Open Space or Cost Reductions
Applicants should recognize the overwhelming desire expressed by citizens for more open space. Innovative design which clusters development allowing greater sized open space areas are viewed positively by most communities. We encourage developers to consider asking for additional density for provision of larger land areas left in open space especially with creative designs which provide access to the open space through the total development.

9. Listen and Show Respect for Local Officials
This is another obvious statement, however, we have found that many times an applicant will bluster in to a community demanding prompt approval due to a “short deadline.” It must be recognized that Plan Commissioners must deal with residents concerns and need time to review and complete their job.

Applicants who rush the process and “push” the decision process without regard for the Plan Commission members time and need for review seriously hinder a respectful dialogue.

10. Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say
We have attended meetings where applicants “promise the world” and conveniently forget the promises once the development is completed. We caution applicants to be honest in their commitments and fulfill their promises.

It is important to understand the role of each member participating in the decision process; applicant, plan commission and staff. Not every project, even though that’s what the applicant wants, will pass through the approval process without change.

Preparation and understanding is the “key” to achieving an approval supported by all parties of the process. Understanding an applying the about principles provides for a higher chance of success

About the Authors
Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP, is the owner of Public Consulting Team, a Benton Harbor, Michigan planning consulting firm which has consulted with the Villages of Beecher, Sauk Village Glenwood and Homewood as their consulting planner. He holds two Masters’ Degrees, one from Governors State University and the other from the University of Notre Dame. He is an active writer, having more than 150 articles published on various economic development, land use planning and real estate development topics. He can be contacted at 219-879-1012, or E-mail at

Craig Harlan Hullinger, AICP, is the President of Planning Development Services. He has served as the Will County Director of Land Use and Planning where he supervised planning, zoning, engineering, and building functions. He is currently working with the Villages of Minooka, Tinley Park, Mokena, Munster, IN, the Eastern Will County Regional Council, and as an expert witness. Craig has a BA Degree in Public Administration and a Master’s Degree in Environmental Planning. He can be contacted at 708/ 532- 8991 or E-mail

For more information on Chuck or Craig visit our web page at

Ten Ingredients Found in Successful Downtowns

Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP and Carl Baxmeyer, AICP

Traveling across the Midwest today, one encounters many prosperous downtown shopping areas in small communities. However in equal number, one stumbles into small communities where the downtown retail buildings are, maybe, half occupied and little, if any, economic prosperity shows.

Once can easily ask the questions: “Why is one successful and other not?” Why are retail and services businesses in one downtown thriving and in another withering? Is there some magic ingredient in one downtown which leads business and property owners to develop successful attractions that draw customers to shop that is absent in another?

For more than twenty-five years, we have worked with many government and business leaders seeking to reinvigorate the economic vitality within downtowns of smaller communities. Many lessons learned twenty-five years ago have not changed. While obviously population and future growth heavily favor success, we find business owners and local governmental officials can, and often do, make the difference between a thriving and withering downtown.

We have identified ten ingredients that contribute to successful downtowns. We offer these as a measurement tool to evaluate success and as a pathway to organize a downtown revitalization effort.


1. Customer Focus
Successful downtowns look at the customer in a different way from others. Rather than viewing the customer “as the opposing team player,” successful downtowns view the customer as a team member who defines the merchandise and products which business owners need to supply. Using the team approach, businesses ask what goods and services are needed and then stock them. They take one step further and show the availability of these products through advertising to those whom many not shop frequently in the downtown.

2. Tell A Story Everyone Knows
Successful downtowns have “cheerleaders” who promote excitement and enthusiasm about the downtown shopping experience to customers and business owners. They make the shared vision of the current level of success widely known and serve as the spokesperson for plans that will make the downtown even more exciting to shoppers.

3. Clearly Communicated Shopping Experience
Every shopper has an expectation of what shopping will be like in a particular downtown. Close and easy parking; friendly sales staff; picturesque stores; and wide variety of merchandise for example express part of the shopping experience. Successful downtowns document the shopping experience and tell others about it. They go to great lengths to retain and improve the customers’ perception of their personal shopping experience.

4. Value Driven Service
The mission of the downtown is to provide goods and services at a value acceptable to the customer while making a profit for the individual business. Much has been written about impersonal mass merchandisers, catalogues and Internet firms and the growing desire of some shoppers for a personal service shopping experience. Successful downtowns have identified their market niche and are known to provide a higher level of value for their services within the bounds of their market niche.
5. Brick And Mortar To Support the Mission
Every successful downtown has a “brick and mortar” improvement project underway, or “in the making.” The image of a successful downtown is, in part, displayed by incremental completion of “brick and mortar” improvements, be they small landscape plantings or large streetscape improvements. Successful downtowns plan and carry-out a program of physical improvements that show government and private owner dedication to “fix-up” and revitalize the physical infrastructure necessary to support private business investment.

6. Reliance on Customer Attraction
All success stems from customers and the success of a downtown comes from attracting customers to the downtown for social and shopping needs. Successful downtowns never get caught in the “that’s the way we do things” syndrom and are always looking for new ways to make people visit the downtown for social and shopping reasons. They want customers to first think to shop in the downtown and shop downtown more often, even as part of a trip for some social activity.

7. A Long Term Customer Loyalty Program
It is a fact of modern retailing that “customer loyalty” is rewarded. Preferred customer cards, direct mail special discount offers, special sales hours, and reward points are but a few of the incentives offered to loyal customers. Successful downtowns have learned a lesson about “customer loyalty” and provide a loyalty reward or discount program for shopping in the downtown.

8. Feedback on Performance
How well we doing? What is our customers’ satisfaction rating this month? Is it better than last month? Is it better than last year? These are a few of the continual questions that successful downtown sponsors should answer. A successful downtown will establish a mechanism periodically to monitor customer satisfaction. They identify progress and make changes designed to increase future customer satisfaction.

9. Dedicated Sales Staff Training
Being a downtown sales person is an important position. In successful downtowns being a sales person is more than knowing how to “ring-up” the sale but also to be a tourist guide, problem solver and referral agent. In successful downtowns, they organize a formal training program to give information to sales personnel better to inform visitors and regular customers about other shopping that can be done and the latest social events that will bring then back into the downtown.

10. Good Business Rations - Cross Selling
Today, mass merchandisers provide a variety of goods within their stores. They adopt the principle that once the shopper enters the store they will find everything they need under one roof. Successful downtowns have adopted a variation on this theme, “shop in our downtown and you will find (almost) every thing that you will need.” The goal, identical to the mass merchandiser, is to get the customer to do all (or most ) of their shopping within the downtown with downtown sales staff making reference to goods and services available from other downtown businesses.

Twenty-five years ago we identified that successful downtowns were composed of business and property owners who had a compulsion for success. Lenders and governmental leaders who believed in the need for a successful downtown supported them and were willing to accept a long-term dedication to the compulsion of the private interests. All parties took risks; some risks were clearly “winners” others clearly “losers.” However, with each success or loss the process narrowed choices aiming this compulsion closer toward success.

Success we learned, are “fleet-of-foot. Downtown success is a living growing perception, much like a living organism. As with any living organism it needs continual nourishment for it to grow. Even more important, like a living organism, growth is not an upwardly straight line but filled with starts and stops, rapid jumps and sometimes dies back requiring a little selective pruning. Over time however, the need to grow and survive achieves success much like the compulsion expressed by successful downtown business owners.

Not much has changed during the past twenty-five years. Using the ten ingredients will help organize and achieve success. Clearly however, the compulsion for success, is single handily the magic elixir that nourishes the long term success.

Municipal Sponsorship of Golf Course Development

A Public/Private Economic Development Approach
Craig Hullinger AICP & Charles Eckenstahler AICP

A golf course surrounded by residential or commercial development has become an increasingly popular means to provide open space while serving as an attractive amenity for newer developments. Golf courses also provide a visual amenity which enhances the image of the community and attractiveness of a site to potential occupants. It can also help acceptance of major new development by the surrounding property owners. Because of benefits which can be accrued, many communities seek the opportunity to develop a golf course in their community. Many start this process by including a golf course in their Comprehensive Plan.

While showing a golf course on the Comprehensive Plan - Future Land Use Map, most communities do little to implement the goal. Instead, they leave the job of “making-it-happen” to private developers. This article address the role of local government in implementing the Comprehensive Plan goal of developing a golf course in their community.

The initiative for development of a golf course may come form the public or private sector. First, as a part of its Comprehensive Plan, local government can identify an area for the course and designate the land for a future golf course development. Alternately, a property owner or developer can propose a suitable land area. In either case, inclusion of the site on the Comprehensive Plan - Future Land Use Map, acknowledges the goal of the community to locate a golf course; regardless whether publicly or privately owned.

From the perspective of local government, the case for a public-private partnership to develop a golf course is strong, especially for office and industrial projects that will enhance local tax base. The development of a golf course to stimulate other private sector development, such as a business park, can be viewed as a legitimate public-purpose economic development activity since it will provide benefits including:
● Increasing potential for other economic development in the community;
● Enhancing the image and prestige of the community;
● Increasing the amount of land in open space;
● Providing land for wetland rehabilitation and/or preservation;
● Providing land for stormwater detention purposes;
● Improving the visual appearance of the community;
● Encouraging annexation of key properties, sometimes; and
● Providing a valued recreation resource within the community.

Benefits are not one-side. Development a golf course also provides several financial incentives for the developers of abutting property, including:
● Increasing the pace of sales/lease-up within the development;
● Increasing the development value of surrounding property;
● Enhancing the image and prestige of the development (higher prices/lease rates);
● Improving private sector returns on investment made to the development;
● Increasing likelihood of prompt governmental development approvals;
● Possibly lowering costs for stormwater management costs for the development;
● Possibly lowering utility construction and connection costs; and
● Possibly assisting development financing.

Generally there are three partnership development models: 1) government owned course with private owned abutting land development, 2) private owned course with private abutting land development and 3) public/private owned course with private abutting land development.
For each of the models the financing of the course can be entirely municipal, or private, or a mix of public and private capital. Normal, Illinois recently developed a public owned course on land abutting I-55 surrounded by residential and commercial development. The developer initiated the idea, and gave the land to the City with the condition that the City develop the course.

Park Forest, Illinois, expanded its successful executive nine hole course in partnership Naughton Development Company. Naughton Development has constructed single family and town homes around the expanded municipal course.

Munster, Indiana designed a golf course as an open space amenity in a proposed office and industrial park adjacent to a municipal airport. Munster is seeking a developer to undertake the public and private portion of the development.

Country Club Hills, Illinois proposes a joint public/private project with a golf course on Cook County Forest Preserve with abutting private development for land abutting I-57. The City is currently working with the Forest Preserve and private property owners to bring the project reality.

The Kankakee Community College campus has three hole golf course located adjacent to I-57. Vacant land surrounding the course allows for expansion of the course and potential public or private development. This course demonstrates how a small golf course can serve as a initial low-cost way for a community make an attractive entryway feature while enticing additional future private development surrounding a future full-scale golf course.

It is oblivious from these examples, there is an endless number of ways the public and private sector can cooperate in a public/private development partnership. Undoubtably, each situation will dictate the role and commitment of each party. Planning experience and legal counsel will be required to prepare a written development agreement setting forth duties of each party, at some point in the process.

Ideally, from the perspective of the community planner, the golf course should use floodplain areas, provide stormwater detention and wetlands preservation areas as part of its overall design. A floodplain area along a creek or river is an ideal location and provides the opportunity to include wetlands and water features into the course design.

The ideal location, from the private developers perspective, is a site just beyond municipal utilities where land cost are low and private development can easily be attracted. Since the local government is a partner in the development their cooperation and financial support for extension of utilities could be negotiated as part of their participation. Obliviously, if the site is not within the municipality, annexation of the course will likely bring an large new area into the community for future development.

Soil and site conditions must be suitable for a golf course development. Certain flooding conditions is acceptable if the frequency and volume of water storage is made part of the overall course design. Frequently flooded areas or areas where flood water are detained for inordinate periods of time are inappropriate. These areas, however, can serve as buffers and less used portions of the course , if properly designed. Attractive rolling terrain and mature trees are desirable and provide interest into the course design. Thus, the course will usually take maximum advantage of the low ground around a creek or drainage way, the high ground especially rolling tomography and any mature vegetation on the site.

The ideal site is large enough to allow private development along the perimeter of the property. Ideally, a 170 acre course should be located on a 320 to 640 acre tract to ensure sufficient private development around the course. The course should provide the maximum exposure to adjacent development property.

It should be viewable from surrounding roads should providing an attractive vista within the context of the community. Usually, if development is a joint public/private partnership, the course will open for public use and walking and jogging path should surround perimeter the course for use by walkers, joggers, bikers and skaters.

What's in a name? Quite a lot. One major benefit of the private/public development effort is creating or enhancing community image. The best opportunity to help the image of the community occurs when the name of the golf course (and surrounding development) is tied to the name of the of the community. Some examples include: The Munster Golf Course, Munster Country Club, Munster Office Research Center, and Munster Golf Estates for a golf course development in Munster, Indiana. While prestige and marketability of the community and development are enhanced by the name use of the community name links the community location with the development for persons seek to find the golf course and abutting developments.

The current cost of developing an average 18-hole course is two to three million dollars excluding land costs. A pro-named champion course can cost considerably more. Ideally green fees and sales of goods and services should cover all operating costs and repay loans necessary for purchase of land and construction of the course. Whether public or private, the course should operate and generate revenue over and above operational and debt payment expenses.

If the municipality, park district, or forest preserve district, owns the course it has the advantage of as owner has the advantage of not paying property and sales taxes plus can borrow funds for construction as a lessor interest rate. Therefore, public ownership has an easier time making a profit when compared to public ownership. Ownership, will effect the cost charged for daily green fees and other services. Therefor, the form of ownership will be likely be one of the earliest decisions made in creating the public/private agreement for the overall development project.

Public golf courses are, for the most part, profitable although losses must expected during the initial start-up period. In some communities, the public course is viewed as a recreation amenity and the residents of the community are given reduced green fee rates. These communities view the course, in part as a community recreational amenity. While they seek to have the course profitable they recognize that the course may require a minor subsidy from the community form time-to-time.

Local park districts, communities, and forest preserve districts today routinely operate public courses. Sometime, a private operator is engaged to operate the course. In many instance, an experienced golf course operator is probably the best choice, if the local government has no experience.

A public/private partnership approach to golf course and abutting land development can enhance the economic development objectives of any community. A mixed-use public owned golf course surrounded by private residential or commercial development is the type of developments which should be encouraged. . This type of public/private economic development partnership seems will increase in the future. Both local communities and the private developers will benefit

Public/private partnerships can take many forms, but the most obvious golf course development approach is for the local government to own and finance the course while the developer controls the surrounding development. The actual financing arrangements would vary, with the terms of the project, and can be a combination of public and private sources.

A public/private partnerships is difficult achieve. Local government operates in the "fish bowl" of public scrutiny. The public sector must balance both public and private interests so as the development is not viewed as a "give away" to a developer but a “true” incentive for economic development.

We believe the best partnership is one that keeps public functions separate from private functions. We suggest the model of public ownership of the golf course with the responsibility of abutting private development left to private sector interests. The "right" developer and community are clearly critical for the successful completion of a public/private partnership. The community must want to grow, be progressive, and be willing to take some risk to enhance the community. The developer must function in the public fish bowl and be able to take and handle public criticism.

Is it Time to Update Our Zoning Ordinance?

Charles Eckenstahler, AICP and Craig Hullinger, AICP

Is it time to update our zoning ordinance? Almost every elected official at some time will be faced with this question. Prompting the need for changes to the code may be expressed by the planning staff, members of the Plan Commission or Zoning Board of Appeals, other elected or appointed officials, developers, or concerned citizens.

How does an elected official know when it is time to update the zoning ordinance? Illinois law does not specify when a community should update their zoning ordinance. Therefore, the decision to update the zoning ordinance is made by the Plan Commission in conjunction with their legislative body.

Some communities embed an artificial time trigger into the ordinance or other planning document that requires the Plan Commission and/or Zoning Board of Appeals to review and amend the ordnance at a specific time period. More often than not, this trigger is this forgotten or ignored.

This article proposes a three-part test that gauges the need to update the zoning ordinance. It can be used to identify whether it is time to take action to complete a serious review of the zoning ordinance.

Daily administration of the zoning ordinance functionally falls into three duties:

Staff Administration - handing out applications, helping applicants in completing the application, review of applications, conformance decision making, referral of applications matters to the Plan Commission or Zoning Board of Appeals, scheduling of Plan Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals actions, and issuance of documentary paperwork.

Plan Commission - consideration of applications for map and language rezoning actions and issuance of special land use permits, as specified in the ordinance including special land uses, planned unit development approvals and approval of plats/site plans.

Zoning Board of Appeals — Issuance of variances (or special land use permission, if applicable), interpretation of the administrative actions or decisions of the zoning administrator and interpretation of ordinance language.

To decide when the ordinance is “broken” and in need of an update, an inventory of actions taken in each category and an assessment of what “fixes” are required. This assessment should address the zoning process from distribution of an application through issuance of final documents to the applicant.

Below is a sample test instrument that can be used to help determine if it is time for an update. We recommend the test be given to members of Plan Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals, administrative staff and elected officials. The tabulated results will reflect a consensus score and show whether it is truly time to update the ordinance.

Please place a checkmark to indicate the answer that most closely indicates your answers to the following questions.

1. How often is staff required to help applicants’ fill-out our standard application(s)?
❑ Never ❑ Sometimes ❑ Often ❑ Frequently ❑ Very Frequently SCORE ☐

2. How often does staff refer an applicant’s request to the Plan Commission or Zoning Board of Appeals?
❑ Never ❑ Sometimes ❑ Often ❑ Frequently ❑ Very Frequently SCORE ☐

3. How often is staff required to seek an interpretation of the ordinance to clarify a definition or ordinance language
❑ Never ❑ Sometimes ❑ Often ❑ Frequently ❑ Very Frequently SCORE ☐

4. Of the total number of zoning matters considered last year, what percentage were referred to the Zoning Board of Appeals to obtain a yard dimension variance?

❑ 0% ❑ Less than 25% ❑ 25% to 49% ❑ 50% to 75% ❑ More than 75% SCORE ☐

5. Of the total number of zoning matters considered last year, what percentage required the issuance of a special land
use permit?
❑ 0% ❑ Less than 25% ❑ 25% to 49% ❑ 50% to 75% ❑ More than 75% SCORE ☐

6. Of the total number of zoning matters considered last year, what percentage requested zoning map changes?
❑ 0% ❑ Less than 25% ❑ 25% to 49% ❑ 50% to 75% ❑ More than 75% SCORE ☐

7. Of the total number of zoning matters considered last year, what percentage requested language changes?
❑ 0% ❑ Less than 25% ❑ 25% to 49% ❑ 50% to 75% ❑ More than 75% SCORE ☐

8. In the past five years, has an applicant challenged a decision in court?
❑ Yes ❑ No SCORE ☐
9. In the past year, has legal counsel suggested a review be conducted?
❑ Yes ❑ No SCORE ☐

10. Please indicate how many time during the past five years a text change ordinance has been enacted?
❑ None ❑ Less than five times ❑ 5 to 10 times ❑ 11 to 25 times ❑ More than 25 times SCORE ☐

For questions one through three give the following scores for each answer; a 1 for never, a 2 for sometimes, a 3 for often, a four for frequently and a 5 for very frequently. For questions five through seven give the following scores for each answer; a 1 for 0%, a 2 for less than 25%, a 3 for 25% to 49%, a 4 for 50% to 75% and a 5 for more than 75%.

For questions 8 and 9 give the following scores; a 5 for yes and a 1 for no. For the last questions, question s 10, give a 1 for none, a 2 for less than five times, a 3 for 5 to 10 times, a 4 for 11 to 25 times and 5 for more than 25 times.

In our opinion a community should consider updating a zoning ordinance when the total score exceeds 25 points and the following trends have been identified using the results of the test:
∙ when administrative staff needs to seek interpretations of zoning ordinance language “frequently,”

∙ when more than 25% of the applications require rezoning or special land use permission,

∙ when more than 25%of the actions require issuance of a dimensional variance, and

∙ when more than 50% of the applicants require staff assistance to complete an application.

If your community tests positive, it is time to discuss an update of the ordinance. Remember, the test serves as a “quick indicator” identifying whether it is time to consider an update. This test should trigger a more in-depth analysis, before expenditure of time and funds for an update of the zoning ordinance is authorized.

If you test positive, we recommend that staff study the matter more fully and begin identification of specific problem areas. Assistance of your legal counsel is advisable at this time, since they may also have identified specific issues to be address as part of the update process.

We advise seeking outside planning consultant assistance to complete an impartial review and offer recommendations for consideration in the updating process, even if you intend to complete the update process with “in house” personnel. An outside planning consultant can draw upon working experience from a wide range of clients to identify current and future zoning issues that should be addressed as part of the update. The outside consultant also lends credibility to the process, and can absorb some of the blame sure to accrue if you make your ordinance more stringent.

A complete “overhaul” of a zoning ordinance is a time consuming and costly venture. A community is best served when it includes extensive public input. Active participation from the plan commission and zoning boards of appeals is also important. This reduces the preparation time and assures community support during the public hearing and adopting phase.

Updating the zoning ordinance is difficult, but a community should keep its code current. Using the three-part test can help you determine if your code requires an update.

About the Authors
Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP, is the owner of Public Consulting Team, a Benton Harbor, Michigan planning consulting firm engaged by the Villages of Beecher, Sauk Village and Homewood to serve as their consulting planner. He holds two Masters’ Degrees, one from Governors State University and the other form the University of Notre Dame. He is an active writer, having more than 100 articles published on various economic development, land use planning and real estate development topics. He can be contacted at 219-879-1012, or E-mail at

Craig Harlan Hullinger, AICP, is the President of Planning Development Services. He has served as a Village Manager and a County Director of Land Use and Planning supervising planning, zoning, engineering, and building functions. He is currently working with the Villages of Minooka, Mokena, Tinley Park, Munster, IN, the Eastern Will County Regional Council, and as an expert witness. Craig has a BA Degree in Public Administration and a Master’s Degree in Environmental Planning. He can be contacted at 708/ 532- 8991 or E-mail

For more information on Chuck or Craig visit our web page at

Approve This Rezoning - It's The Highest and Best Land Use!

Craig Hullinger, AICP and Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP

It is common in today’s zoning administration to hear someone call upon the plan commission to recommend the rezoning of a parcel because the proposed use will be the “highest and best use” of the parcel of land. Typically, the statement is made by the applicant, their attorney or their real estate agent, in an effort to persuade the plan commission to approve their request.

In the public hearing process, planners hear a lot about highest and best land use. In common usage, highest and best land use is nothing more than an individuals’ personal opinion concerning how a parcel of land should be used. However, in real estate law and real property appraisal practice, the concept of highest and best land use is a technical analysis which can be used to determine the best use of land, subject to certain assumptions.

This article is designed to review the technical process of determining highest and best land use, as viewed by the legal profession and real estate appraisers. This review will provide background for community planners and local zoning officials to separate a petitioner’s personal opinion from judgements based on factual technical analysis about the potential use of a specific parcel of property.

The concept of highest and best land use originates from the real estate appraisal field. Appraisers define of highest and best land use as:
The use, from among reasonably probable and legal alternative uses, found to be physically possible, appropriately supported, financially feasible, that results in the highest land value.
What this definition states is the highest and best land use is the use which meets a four part test demonstrating the use is (1) physically possible, (2) legally permissible, (3) financially feasible and (4) maximally productive.

Physically Possible - Not all parcels of land are created equal. In planning a use for the parcel of land, consideration must be given to the size of parcel, roadway access, subsurface conditions, presence of environmental concerns (wetland, endangered species) and even contamination from prior use or illegal dumping.

Many times the size of the parcel, physical shape, access or prior use prohibit the development or use of the parcel for specific uses. For example, a small parcel of land along a major roadway cannot be use for a fast food restaurant if it cannot obtain a “curb cut” allowing a safe driveway entry to the property.

Uses which pass this first test are the uses which in the judgement of the appraiser can be developed or built on the property. The appraiser may consult with a design team composed of land planners and engineers. More complicated cases can require the services of architects, land surveyors, traffic experts, geologists, and environmental consultants. Based on their combined expertise they can eliminate uses which cannot physically be developed on the parcel.

Legally Permissible - Local, state and federal government have laws and regulations which govern the use of land. In this test, the only permissible uses of the land are those which are permitted by these laws and regulations. In addition to local zoning, development of a parcel of land must adhere to stormwater management regulations, wetland protection, endangered species, “curb cut” access from roadways and many other rules. Each regulation may establish a rule which impacts what may or may not be legally permitted.

From the developers view, where the regulation prohibits development of the parcel of land as desired, an appeal to the local government or regulating agency to vary the strict terms of the regulations may be considered. The probability of receiving favorable consideration for the request must also be considered to determine whether the proposed use will pass this test.

Financially Feasible - With enough money you can develop any use on any site, assuming its size is adequate. With modern engineering techniques a developer can correct or mitigate many problems, including subsurface soil problems, wetlands and floodplain. The developer can construct parking garages to get more parking spaces per square foot of land area to meet applicable zoning regulations.

The test of financial feasibility, however, addresses the question of can a profit be made on the investment of funds in the development. Building a shopping center which requires rent of $12.00 per square foot of floor area in a market where shop keepers can only pay $7.00 per square foot would not be a financially feasible investment.

To pass this test, a proposed development is subjected to a financial feasibility analysis. This analysis projects the income generated from the development compared to the cost to develop the parcel of land. The profit (excess income) after payment for developing the parcel is compared to profit of comparative projects or other investments such as returns an investor would gain in a stock market portfolio. In the real world today, a developer of property seeks a 20-25% return on their invested funds for developing real estate.

Maximally Productive - Understanding this concept is rather easy. It suggests that a developer will seek to develop uses which provide the highest profit and largest amount of financial return.

Highest and Best Land Use, by definition, is much more than a personal opinion. The uses which pass the four part test are those which meet the needs and are allowable by the local government, are physically possible, have development costs which can be supported by rents or sales prices offered in the current or future market and provide for a market rate financial return to the developer.

Local governments share the duty of determining the highest and best land use in their communities with property owners, realtors, developers and others. The process of determining the highest and best land use is embodied in the process of preparing the Comprehensive Plan for the community. Community-wide highest and best land use decisions are made as part of the land use planning process (especially the physically possible and legally permissible criteria) and subsequently identified and regulated in the zoning ordinance. Implicit in the process of preparing the plan and zoning ordinance map is designation of which areas of the community should be used for residential, commercial and industrial uses.


Developers often use Highest and Best Land Use as a reason to change the plan and rezone a parcel of land to another use. Recognizing the community planning process does not truly consider each of the four parts of the Highest and Best Land Use test, there is good reason to listen to the claim and adjust the community plan and zoning when appropriate. Below is a list of questions to ask yourself when faced with the claim, approve this rezoing - it’s the highest and best land use!

1. Who is making the statement; does the opinion come from a independent third party?
2. Is the proposed use a complete change of use (residential to commercial) or a refinement to a designated use (single family residential to multi-family residential)?

3. Does the proposed use of the land conform to the intent of the community land use plan?

4. Is there other land easily available, designated in the community land use plan where this proposed use can be located?

5. Does the use physically “fit” the parcel of land?

6. Are the existing uses and zoning of abutting and nearby properties comparable with the proposed use?

7. Would a change of land use at this location have a detrimental impact on abutting properties?

8. What is the length of time the property has been vacant as currently zoned in context of land development in the immediate vicinity?

9. Is there a community need for the proposed land use?

10. How much care was taken by the community to identify the specific use of this property and the surrounding vicinity during preparation of the community land use plan?

Local communities hold the “key” to the determination of the highest and best use of any property under their planning and zoning control, since they establish what is legally permissible. Typically, the comprehensive planning process analyzes the physically possibility for development of the land and may consider (although slightly) the financial feasibility of development.

Claims made by developers should be given due consideration, especially when the claim is based on technical information, data and analysis prepared by a professional development team organized by the developer using the four part test. When a claim is based on the four part Highest and Best Land Use test it will provide detailed information concerning the physical development of the parcel, an analysis of why it cannot/should not be developed under the terms of the current plan and zoning ordinance, and why it is necessary to change the plan and ordinance to meet current real estate development investment expectations.

Planners and local officials serve their communities best when they listen to all claims that a property should be rezoned because the proposed use it is the highest and best land use of the parcel of land. They serve the community well when they disregard the impassioned personal opinion plea and seriously consider the well prepared and documented claim substantiated by independent third parties, even if engaged by the applicant, based on the four part test.

About the Authors
Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP, is the owner of Public Consulting Team, a Benton Harbor, Michigan planning consulting firm engaged by the Villages of Beecher, Sauk Village and Homewood to serve as their consulting planner. He holds two Masters’ Degrees, one from Governors State University and the other form the University of Notre Dame. He is an active writer, having more than 100 articles published on various economic development, land use planning and real estate development topics. He can be contacted at 219-879-1012, or E-mail at

Craig Harlan Hullinger, AICP, is the President of Planning Development Services. He served as the Assistant Village Manager for Tinley Park and as Will County Director of Land Use and Planning where he supervised planning, zoning, engineering, and building functions. He is currently working with the Villages of Minooka, Tinley Park, Munster, IN, the Eastern Will County Regional Council, and as an expert witness. Craig has a BA Degree in Public Administration and a Master’s Degree in Environmental Planning. He can be contacted at 708/ 532- 8991 or E-mail

For more information on Chuck or Craig visit our web page at http

You Can't Do That - It's Spot Zoning!


Craig Hullinger, AICP and Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP

Almost every Plan Commission at one time or another, has been chided with the statement that the Commission cannot approved a rezoning request because it will create a spot zone. Most often this statement is made by a disgruntled adjoining property owner who objects to the neighboring property being occupied and used in a certain way. The accusation implies the Plan Commission is doing something wrong and possibly illegal by creating a spot zone.

This article is intended to demystify spot zoning. Spot zoning in actuality, is a misnomer. A spot zone cannot be created if the Plan Commission carefully considers the facts of the property, the proposed land use and relies on an up-to-date adopted Comprehensive Plan as the guide for the application of zoning regulations for the specific property.

Nowhere in planning and zoning legislation is the term spot zone defined or used. Spot zoning is colloquial term developed to describe the application of a specific zoning district classification to a small area which is surrounded by a larger different (usually less intense) zoning district.

Webster defines spot as 1) a particular place of relatively small a definite limits, 2) a mark on a surface differing sharply in color from the surroundings, 3) a position; location and 4) a set of circumstances; a situation, especially a troublesome one.

In fact, the courts concur with this definition. In the case of Landcaster development Ltd. V. Village of River Forest (1st Dist.1967) the court stated for a decision “to constitute spot zoning, two requisites must coexist: First, a change of the zone applicable to a small area and second, a change which is out of harmony with comprehensive planning for the good of the community.”
It is easy to seen why the term spot zoning is often used. It is most often used to describe action where a relatively small parcel of land is rezoned and granted some special benefit . The parcel of land is then shown on the community zoning map as one color within a larger zoning district of a different color. But, the accusation could be made in a number of other rezoning situtations.
******Craig wax profusely here!

In Illinois, there is a specific set of requirements which a Plan Commission must consider when evaluating a request for the rezoning of a parcel of land. These standards were established by the Illinois Supreme Count in two cases; LaSalle and Richton Park. Generally, for a rezoning matter upheld in the Supreme Court the Plan Commission must consider:

Good planning practices will prevent appearances of spot zoning. In fact, adhearance to the standards anfd an up-to-date comprehensive plan describing the intended use of the ;and which is in the best interest of the community virtually eliminates the problem.

Zoning decision making which relies on the eight rezoning standards, clearly establish a rationale why a requested rezoning should be granted, even if provided the opportunity for the the land to be used more profitably. Secondly, the use of the Comprehensive Plan for justification of the decision documents that the decision was made “for the good of the community.”

DO - evaluate each rezoning on its individual merits using the eight standards. A written record of the rationale be prepared.

DO - reference the Comprehensive Plan as documentation for why a decision has been made.
DO - amend the Comprehensive Plan (preferably before granting the rezoning)if a made which is inconsistant with the current plan.

DON’T - succumb to public pressure. Recognize spot zoning is oftentimes used as a threat by those who may object to the rezoning.

DON’T - worry about the size of the parcel(s) of land under consideration. Rather, consider the importance of the proposed land use and its interrelationship with surrounding properties (which may only one abutting property or many properties located in the much larger area).

A spot zoning action can not occur if good planning practices are followed. Careful adherence to the suggested standards and procedures will prevent appearances of preferential benefits being granted by a rezoning action. The best defense, when being chided, is reference to the action being in the best interest of the community documented in the Comprehensive Plan and shown on it’s Future Land use Plan.

About the Authors
Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP, is the owner of Public Consulting Team, a Benton Harbor, Michigan planning consulting firm engaged by the Villages of Beecher, Sauk Village and Homewood to serve as their consulting planner. He holds two masters degrees one form Governors State University and the other form the University of Notre Dame. He is an active writer, having in excess of 100 articles published on various economic development, land use planning and real estate development topics. He can be contacted at 219-879-1012, or E-mail at

Craig Harlan Hullinger, AICP, is a governmental planning consultant and President of Planning Development Services. He recently reentered private practice after serving as the Assistant Village Manager for Tinley Park. He also has served as Will County Director of Land Use on two occasions. In both positions he supervised planing, zoning, engineering, and building functions. He has served as a planning consultant to the Villages of Tinley Park, Frankfort, Munster, IN, and several other communities. He serves as an expert witness for numerous attorneys with most of his current activity centering on the I-355 Corridor. Craig has a BA Degree in Public Administration and a Master’s Degree in Environmental Planning. Craig can be contacted at 708/ 532-8991 or E-mail Web