Zoning Laws: Requiring Consistency with a Comprehensive Plan

By Alan R. Romero

Zoning enabling acts all contain some version of a requirement that the zoning ordinance be “in accordance with a comprehensive plan.” This means that not only must the originally adopted ordinance be in accordance with a comprehensive plan, but so must amendments to the ordinance. This statutory requirement limits local legislative freedom to adopt amendments requested by landowners.

State approaches to interpreting and applying requirements of consistency with a comprehensive plan include the following:

  • The zoning ordinance must be rational. In most states, the requirement of consistency with a comprehensive plan isn’t very restrictive. Most courts have interpreted the requirement to mean simply that the zoning ordinance itself must reveal a rational plan of zoning, not that the zoning ordinance must comply with a separate document called a comprehensive plan.

    Therefore, most courts hold that as long as a zoning amendment could rationally be thought to be consistent with the public interest, it’s in accordance with a comprehensive plan.

  • The zoning ordinance must comply with a written plan. Some states require that the zoning ordinance be consistent with an actual written plan for the community. Such a requirement is more of a limit on legislative freedom to zone and amend.

    In some of these states, an amendment to a zoning ordinance simply can’t allow something that the comprehensive plan doesn’t allow. Therefore, the landowner may need to first seek amendment of the plan before seeking amendment of the zoning ordinance—and some states limit the circumstances in which the plan may be amended or how often it may be amended.

  • The zoning ordinance must be in basic harmony with a written plan. In some states, the zoning ordinance only needs to be generally consistent with a written plan. The legislative body may amend the zoning ordinance to allow something not allowed in the comprehensive plan—or to forbid something allowed by the comprehensive plan—as long as the amendment is in basic harmony with the purposes of the plan.

  • The court reviews a zoning ordinance differently if it’s inconsistent with a written plan. When a zoning amendment is inconsistent with the plan in some respects, some courts have shifted the burden to the government to demonstrate how the amendment advances the purposes of the plan.

    They may also review the amendment decision to determine whether the evidence before the legislative body could have supported a conclusion that the amendment was consistent with the plan.