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Part VI: Subdivision Regulations
PART VI: The Subdivision Regulations
July 14, 2008
Subdivision Regulations in America emerged during the rapid period of land speculation and development that was driven by the early Industrial expansion in the mid-1800s. This period witnessed an explosion of growth in a number of major Midwestern urban centers, such as Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, due to their strategic locations as transfer and processing centers for imported raw materials from rural areas that were converted to finished goods by expanding industries and shipped out by rail and water. To satisfy the demand for workers to serve these growing industries, land speculators platted and developed vast tracts of land surrounding these emerging urban centers creating the first major residential tract subdivisions. Typically, these early major subdivisions offered only the most basic infrastructure and improvements. In fact, the earliest adopted Subdivision Regulations were little more than standard procedures for preparing and recording plats to ensure that titles to lots could be reliably and legally recorded, tracked, and sold. These early regulations were written to make the subdivision and sale process work smoothly rather than to require basic infrastructure standards and ensure design quality.
1. The History & Purpose of Subdivision Regulations:
The scope of local Subdivision Regulations expanded with the introduction of the Standard City Planning Enabling Act in 1928 by the U.S. Department of Commerce. These initial planning guidelines made local governments aware that Subdivision Regulations could be used to better manage urban growth and development patterns. In response, cities began to adopt Subdivision Regulations that addressed the arrangement of streets to serve lots in subdivisions, basic new street design standards, and infrastructure improvements needed to support the lots created by subdivisions. These expanded standards form the basis of modern Subdivision Regulations that local governments adopt and enforce today.
The primary focus of municipal Subdivision Regulations is to govern the division of land into buildable lots and to ensure that the lots are served by adequate streets and supporting infrastructure (water, sewer, and other basic utilities). Permitted land use and other building lot improvement requirements are governed by the Zoning Ordinance through the site plan development process. The 2 most important sections or “articles” of all local Subdivision Regulations address street design standards, which regulate the platting of street rights-of-ways, the design of street surface improvements, and the arrangement of streets and intersections, and basic subdivision improvement requirements that govern how lots are designed and arranged as well as design and construction standards for the infrastructure improvements needed to support them, such as sidewalks, property boundary markers, water, sewer, and other utilities. These 2 regulatory elements form the basis of most Subdivision Regulations enforced today. Like the Zoning Ordinance, Subdivision Regulations must be consistent with the goals and objectives of the local Comprehensive Plan. They represent an additional tool to influence the overall pattern of development in the community and should be designed to implement the plan’s recommendations regarding the design of streets and infrastructure as well as the desired form or pattern of land development.
2. Legislative Authority & the Role of the Planning Commission:The adoption and administration of local government Subdivision Regulations in Maryland are governed by Article 66-B, Section 5 of the Maryland Annotated Code, as amended. As required by Section 5.03 (a), Subdivision Regulations must be adopted by the local Legislative Body (Mayor and Council), based on a recommendation from the Planning Commission. In that regard, the Planning Commission’s role in the adoption and amendment of Subdivision Regulations is advisory only, which is the same role the Planning Commission serves for the Zoning Ordinance. However, Section 5.04 of Article 66-B gives the Planning Commission final authority to approve or deny subdivision applications. This authority represents the Planning Commission’s greatest specific authority in the development process.
The review and approval of a subdivision plat is a very challenging and demanding technical process. The overall scope of a typical subdivision plat review ranges from general quality of life issues, such as natural habitat and resource impacts, recreational improvement and open space needs, and traffic and pedestrian circulation and access issues, to detailed engineering specifications, such as the design of stormwater management improvements, street construction specifications, and the adequacy of water and sewer lines. Consequently, major subdivisions involving more than 5 lots or providing new public streets, utility lines, or other common facilities, are subject to multiple approvals before the Planning Commission-1 for the project concept, 1 for a preliminary design plat, and 1 for the final plat that will be recorded in the County Land Records office. The various steps in the review and approval process give developers and project engineers the option of managing the design costs by addressing more detailed engineering requirements at later phases of the approval process. Due to the complexity of issues associated with subdivision approvals, the Planning Commission can consider comments and issues raised by staff and outside agencies, as may be documented in a staff report.
When reviewing a Subdivision Plat, it is important to understand that any special conditions imposed by the Planning Commission must be tied in some rational way to requirements in the Subdivision Regulations, Zoning Ordinance, or other adopted and applicable codes and regulations. This “rational nexus” or link to actual standards or requirements identified in the governing codes and regulations is necessary to ensure that the Planning Commission is not being arbitrary or unfair in exercising its approval authority over a subdivision. Any denial should be based on specific findings of inconsistency or deficiency with the general or specific requirements of the local regulations. Generally speaking, it may be appropriate to impose a condition of approval (rather than an outright denial) to address 1 or more issues with a proposed subdivision, if the number of issues is minimal or if the magnitude of the impact or problem is not great and can be mitigated by a specific or simple corrective measure.
3. The Role of Outside Agencies:Numerous agencies outside of the local government can have regulatory jurisdiction in the review of a given subdivision application. An outside agency can have jurisdiction in the review and approval of a subdivision through a specific requirement of the Zoning Ordinance or Subdivision Regulations, by a requirement in State law, by virtue of its ownership and maintenance authority for a necessary public facility, or by virtue of being an impacted adjoining property owner. The list of potentially affected outside agencies can be large based on these criteria, but certain agencies do have more frequent standing in the review process than others. The most common outside agencies and their roles are summarized below:
- A Soil Conservation District - Under Maryland law, the Soil Conservation District is authorized to review subdivisions that disturb more than 5,000 square feet for mitigation of soil erosion impacts.
- B. Maryland Department of the Environment - The Maryland Department of the Environment can have multiple review jurisdictions for a given subdivision. The Department must approve (along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) any development activity that impacts tidal and non-tidal waters of the state, including wetlands and floodways. They also issue Groundwater Appropriation Permits (GAPs) for subdivisions that will be served by individual wells. The Department also may have jurisdiction in a subdivision review if it involves contaminated lands.
- C. County Health Department - Under Maryland law, any and all wells and septic systems or sewer connections required for a subdivision must be approved by the Health Department.
- D. Maryland State Highway Administration - As the administrative authority for all State highways and rights-of-way, the State Highway Administration must review and authorize access permits for any subdivision that requires access to a State or Federal highway or road. The SHA also may have jurisdiction if a proposed development impacts a planned new State or Federal highway corridor or alignment.
- E. Maryland Department of Natural Resources - The Department of Natural Resources can require a habitat protection plan or time-of-year construction restrictions on subdivisions that will impact a threatened or endangered species habitat or an environmental resource (usually wetlands) of special state significance.
- F. County 911 Addressing - All proposed street names and property addresses for newly created lots must be approved by the County prior to recording to ensure that street names are phonetically and grammatically unique and that property numbers are issued properly.
- G. Maryland Department of Planning - The Maryland Department of Planning can have jurisdiction in the approval process of a subdivision, when the application will require a Priority Funding Area amendment or annexation.