A generic paper based proposal/design that has been stamped "Approved" in large diagonal red text.

Simplifying the Planning and Permitting Process

You’ve taken the first step and decided it’s finally time to start that new project. You’ve got the vision in your head and your plans in hand. Now it’s time to get approval so you can get started. 

Anxiety can build when you are told that a local town planning board will need to review and approve your project plans before you can begin your activity or construction. As stressful as this may seem, with the right approach this process is nothing to worry about. 

Working with Existing Structures

Perhaps you have an existing building and you would like to change the use of the building. This could range from changing a very large single-family residence to a multi-family apartment building, a residence to a medical doctor’s office, an office building to a hair salon, a retail space to a restaurant, etc. 

Many towns require a planning board review of a new activity, even though minimal or no construction will be required for the new use. 

A few examples of items a planning board might need to review are:

  •  Hours of operation
  • Increases in traffic
  • Amount of space available to park for the proposed new use
  • Solid waste disposal
  • Buffering and separation between the proposed new use and adjoining properties 

These are just a few examples and unfortunately, there is no magic checklist that applies to all instances; it very much depends on the municipality and the differences between the former use of the property and the proposed new use. 

New Construction

Completely new construction almost always requires a planning board review. This would include most new multi-family housing, a subdivision of land for new house lots, new excavation activities, rock mining, commercial buildings, medical facilities, large scale wind or solar projects, parking lots, manufacturing, restaurants, campgrounds, and hotels.  

What to Expect: Community Input

Over the years, land use ordinances have evolved to the extent you almost always need professional assistance to put together a comprehensive application for review by the authority having jurisdiction, whether that be a planning board, building inspector or code enforcement officer. 

Most planning boards require neighboring property owners to be notified of a pending project to gather public input. A planning board will in all likelihood require at least one public hearing. You can be assured those coming to the public hearing are not there to support your project. There may be well-founded concerns and it is our job to explain to the planning board and public how a proposed project will harmoniously fit in with the neighborhood and meet the specific requirements laid out in the zoning ordinance. 

What to Expect: Timelines

This process can take a few days, a few weeks, or many months. Local planning boards are made up of volunteers from the towns they serve. Most planning boards meet monthly or twice per month and require advance notice to place an item on their agenda so the public knows what business is being discussed at each meeting. So if the planning board decides that more information is needed at the conclusion of the first meeting, it will be another month before your application is reviewed again. 

Their job, among other things, is to interpret the land use ordinances adopted by their town or city. The planning board may propose new rules, but each town has a rulemaking process that either gets voted on at a town meeting for the smaller towns to having a City Council vote in ordinances changes. 

What to Expect: Compromising to Move Forward

Many projects evolve into a series of compromises. Land-use ordinances are oftentimes subjective in nature, leaving the planning board with a broad range of interpretative powers. No ordinance could be written to imagine all of the proposed uses their citizens could propose.

For instance, categories of allowed uses might say “retail” is allowed. That could be someone selling antiques on a part-time basis, a hardware store, a general merchandise store, or a retail marijuana store. Vastly differing uses under one category. 

Compromises between an applicant and a planning board might involve things to lessen the impact on neighbors, traffic mitigation, noise mitigation, and lighting to name a few. Yes, a use might be allowed, but performance standards in an ordinance also need to be addressed, which is where compromises sometimes are made. These compromises typically take the form of conditions of approval, which once approved become the enforcement mechanism for the town to control the use that was permitted. 

What to Expect: Application Processing

Planning boards are also tasked with the administration of the ordinance such as preparing application forms, sending out notices to neighbors, scheduling meetings, holding public hearings, etc. Again, in most towns, these are volunteers doing these tasks. Some of the larger towns and cities do have employees handling the administrative tasks but volunteers sit on the board.

Most planning boards meet either monthly or twice monthly and applications are required to be submitted in advance of a meeting, often times a couple of weeks prior to a meeting. 

You’re not in it alone … 

At Herrick & Salsbury, we provide the connection between the vision you have and the building permits you need to begin construction of your project. Let us take your vision, handle the interactions with the municipal officials, planning board and neighbors and obtain the permits you need. 

We’ve worked with many project types in various stages. Some recently permitted projects include:

Gravel extraction permitting, Franklin, Maine

Self-Storage Facility, Searsport, Maine

Mobile Home Park expansion, Hancock, Maine

Subdivision modification, Ellsworth, Maine

Cottage expansion, Surry, Maine

Condominium project, Bar Harbor, Maine

If you still have questions about the permitting process, take a look at our FAQ section or contact us directly.