Two major tools help communities decide how to use their land: land use planning and zoning.
Land use planning deals with a community’s vision of its future “look and feel” (called a “comprehensive plan”) and normally operates at a fairly general level.
Zoning is the process that sets what can be done on specific parcels of land. Not every local government in Georgia has zoning regulations, but all are required to have comprehensive plans.
Both the planning and zoning processes can be helpful tools to prevent unwanted uses in your community, but both have limitations. This chapter explores the processes, opportunities for public engagement, and limitations and challenges. It also provides helpful tools and resources for navigating land use planning and zoning processes in your community.
Land Use Planning
In Georgia, land use planning is part of a larger scheme called “comprehensive planning.” Each local government (county and municipality) in Georgia is required to develop a comprehensive plan that governs future land use, transportation (including the development of roads), and other issues facing towns and cities as they grow and change.
Georgia law gives the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) authority to establish standards and procedures for comprehensive planning, including land use planning, by all local governments in Georgia. The law also establishes regional commissions (RCs) to assist local governments in the planning process and to ensure that local planning is coordinated and meets minimum standards.
There are 12 RCs, each RC covering a region consisting of 10 to 18 counties. A board of elected or appointed officials governs the RCs. The board’s officials are from the counties and municipalities incorporated in the region served by the RC. You can find a map of RCs and the counties they serve here.
In October 2018, the DCA revised the rules governing the standards and procedures for local comprehensive planning. These rules provide the minimum requirements for the development, management, and execution of local comprehensive plans.
Since the preparation of each element of the comprehensive plan must provide space for community involvement, per the rules, each comprehensive plan creates a powerful opportunity to help shape your community’s future.
To be consistent with the state rules, each local government must develop, and regularly update, a comprehensive plan with four components:
1. Community Goals
Community Goals create a long-term strategy for the community to develop a set of conditions that will maximize the well-being of the community’s residents. This strategy should establish concepts that can guide decision-making in the community years into the future.
Community stakeholders and leaders should be heavily involved in the very public process of creating Community Goals. Goals should be laid out in a document that can be easily used and referenced by community leaders as they make decisions to best serve their community. Community Goals must include at least one or any combination of the following:
General vision statement
List of community goals
Character areas and a defining narrative of the community
These Community Goals need only be updated so often as the community sees fit.
2. Needs and Opportunities
Local stakeholders and leaders should agree on a list of Needs and Opportunities the community intends to address in the short term (within five years). This list should be the result of a community analysis that examines thestrengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats within the community (SWOT analysis).
If the community chooses to designate a need or opportunity as “high priority,” that need or opportunity must have corresponding implementation measures in the Community Work Program, as described below.
This list must be updated every five years.
3. Community Work Program
The Community Work Program implements the concepts created through the development of the community goals and the list of needs and opportunities. It describes the specific activities the community plans to implement within five years after the adoption of the plan to address the identified needs and opportunities while aiming to achieve the community goals.
The Community Work Program incorporates any activities, initiatives, programs, ordinances, and administrative reviews put in place to carry out the plan. The following information must be included for each activity:
Brief description of the activity;
Timeframe for beginning and completing the activity;
Party responsible for implementing the activity;
Estimated cost; and
Funding sources if applicable.
The Community Work Program must be updated every five years.
4. Broadband Services Element
Each local government must develop an action plan for bringing broadband services to unserved areas within its jurisdiction. This action plan must explain the steps to be taken to promote reasonable and cost-effective access to broadband in those areas of the jurisdiction the DCA has deemed “unserved.”
The action plan should include any documentation showing how the community will achieve certification as a Broadband Ready Community. Alternatively, the community may have their facilities designated as Georgia Broadband Ready Community Sites.
The Broadband Services Element need only be updated at the community’s discretion, but it is designed to emphasize the importance of broadband access throughout the state.
Some local governments require additional elements.
Even when not required, these additional components can be helpful in advancing community development goals and are recommended for many communities.
Capital Improvements Element
The Capital Improvements Element is only required for local governments that are raising money through charging impact fees to build or improve public works like wastewater treatment facilities, roads, parks, or police and fire stations. If a local government is doing so, then it must include a Capital Improvements Element in its comprehensive plan that describes the need for the work to be done, how and where work will be done, and the funding sources to be used. This part of the plan must be updated annually.
Economic Development Element
The Economic Development Element is intended to identify community goals, needs, and opportunities related to economic development and integrate activities addressing those needs into the Community Work Program. It is required for local governments included in Georgia Job Tax Credit Tier 1.
With this element in particular, local conditions should be taken into account, including factors such as the diversity of the local labor force and the effectiveness of local economic development agencies, programs, and tools.
Land Use Element
The Land Use Element is required for local governments with zoning or land development regulations subject to the Zoning Procedures Law. If required, this element must include at least one of the following: a character areas map and defining narrativeor a future land use map and narrative.
Character Areas Map and Defining Narrative
Character areas are specific geographic areas or districts within a community that have, or have the potential to develop, unique or special characteristics that should be preserved or enhanced (i.e. a downtown, historic district, arts district, neighborhood, etc.).
A geographic area may also be designated a “character area” if it requires special attention because of unique development issues, such as economic decline.
Character areas are sub-areas within a community that receive more detailed, small-area planning and regulation to help ensure their development process is in line with the long-term strategy outlined in the Community Goals. The character areas map must identify and map the boundaries of all character areas in the community and define a specific plan for each one.
Written description and images that make it clear what development patterns are going to be advanced in the character area
List of the land uses and zoning categories that will be allowed in the area
Identification of specific measures that will be used to achieve the promoted development patterns in the area
Future Land Use Map and Narrative
A future land use map must be prepared that shows the location of specific future land uses described by either a standard categories or Land Based Classification Standards (LBCS) classification scheme.
Using a standard categories classification scheme means the detailed categories of land uses adopted by the community must be able to be grouped into one of the following categories:
The future land use map must also include a narrative that explains how to interpret the map and the meaning of each land use category in the context of the specific community submitting the map.
The Transportation Element is required only for the areas of a local government’s jurisdiction that are included in a Metropolitan Planning Organization; it is not required for the entire jurisdiction of the local government.
This element is an analysis of the effectiveness of the major components of a local transportation system, including:
Roads, highways, and bridges
Alternative means of transportation such as bicycle lanes, pedestrian facilities, and public transportation
Railroads, trucking, port facilities, and airports
Transportation and land use connection to verify transportation and land use development policies do not work against one another
This analysis can be supplied by either the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s transportation strategy for the region or by the local government developing the comprehensive plan. It must also include a strategy for addressing the needs and opportunities identified in the analysis to be integrated into the Community Goals, Need and Opportunities, and Community Work elements of the comprehensive plan.
The Housing Element is required for Community Development Block Grant Entitlement Communities, which receive annual grants to help provide suitable housing and expand economic opportunities to low income residents.
The purpose of this element is to evaluate the adequacy of existing housing in serving current and future community needs. Factors that should be considered are:
Available housing types
Condition and occupancy of current housing
Local cost of housing
Number of cost-burdened households in the community
Balance between the number of jobs and the amount of housing available in the community,
Housing needs of special populations
Availability of housing options across the life-span
Regional Water Plan Considerations
Each community must consider the Regional Water Plan controlling that area and the Department of Natural Resources’ Rules for Environmental Planning Criteria when drafting each element of their comprehensive plan.
The Environmental Protection Division (EPD) of Georgia drafted a State Water Plan to sustainably manage the state’s resources that introduced Regional Water Plans for every water planning region. These regional plans create a comprehensive outline for water management practices across the state in order to best address the future water needs of each region. Georgia Water Planning’s website provides a map of the water planning regions and links to each region’s water plan.
The Rules for Environmental Planning Criteria provide standards for local governments to follow for the establishment and/or protection of water supply watersheds, groundwater recharge areas, wetlands, river corridors, and mountains.
Opportunities for Public Participation
There are several opportunities for public participation through the land use planning process. This section describes how the public can be involved in each step of the process.
First Public Hearing on a New or Updated Comprehensive Plan
The public’s first opportunity to influence future land uses comes during the first required public hearing on a new or updated comprehensive plan.
At the first hearing the community will be briefed on the process that will be used to develop or update the comprehensive plan and will have the chance to provide input on the proposed process. The locality may not begin developing or updating the plan until public comments have been addressed.
Submit Public Comments and Feedback
The public then has the opportunity to provide further feedback as the plan is developed or updated. As previously mentioned, the DCA’s rules require the opportunity for community involvement in the preparation of each element of the comprehensive plan.
Compile a list of stakeholders who must have a voice in the development or update of the plan. This list has to include members of the community or local government and helps ensure follow-through and plan implementation.
(2) Identify Participation Techniques
At a minimum, a steering committee must be created to both oversee and participate in the creation or update of the comprehensive plan. Stakeholders identified in step 1, members of the local government, someone involved in local economic development, and local government staff must all be incorporated in the committee.
Each stakeholder identified in step 1 must be invited to participate in the activities and events chosen in step 2. Participation events are the perfect chance to contribute specific input on the contents of the plan. The steering committee must hold regular meetings to provide feedback as the plan is being developed or updated.
After taking these steps, add documentation to the comprehensive plan as an appendix showing what community engagement activities occurred and which activities and events contributed to the preparation of the plan.
A community’s RC can apply to the DCA for approval of alternate planning requirements if a community’s leadership and RC conclude these requirements are not the most appropriate for that community and have identified an alternative to these standards.
You can stay updated on deadlines for comprehensive plan updates for your city or county using the DCA’s website. The DCA maintains a schedule of plan updates as well as the specific plan elements that must be included in the update.
Second Public Hearing
A second public hearing will be held once the plan is drafted.
At this hearing the community will be briefed on the contents of the plan and have the opportunity to make final suggestions for any additions or revisions. The community must also be notified of when the plan will be submitted to the RC, although the plan cannot be submitted to the RC until public comments have been addressed.
This second hearing is the last chance the community will have to voice any questions or concerns before the plan is submitted to the RC for review.
Once submitted for review, the plan will not be available to the community until it is published for public review.
Plan Approval and Adoption
After the RC and DCA approve the comprehensive plan, the local government may finally adopt it. In doing so, the local government must publicize the passage of the plan and provide the public with a complete copy for review.
Having and understanding the plan can help you ensure that future uses remain consistent with it.
Provide Feedback for Potential Amendments
After publication, the local government has the responsibility of maintaining the plan.
This provides the opportunity for public participation in the plan amendment process when deemed appropriate. Public participation will be required when submitting plan amendments if the DCA decides the amendment may affect the plan’s compliance with the minimum standards.
Staying up to date on your community’s comprehensive plan may allow you to retain an active role in the development of the plan even after its publication.
What is Zoning?
The second major tool to shape a community’s future is zoning. In Georgia, local governments control what uses of land are allowed in their communities via zoning or land use ordinances. An ordinance is a law passed by a local government.
In Georgia, “zoning” is defined as the power of local governments to provide within their respective territorial boundaries for the zoning or districting of property for various uses and the prohibition of other or different uses within such zones or districts and for the regulation of development and the improvement of real estate within such zones or districts in accordance with the uses of property for which such zones or districts were established.
Put simply, this means that zoning is the process through which local governments decide WHAT can be done WHERE.
Consistent with this definition, county and municipal governments zone property by passing an ordinance or resolution and a zoning map that together describe and display the allowed uses and development standards of property within the defined zones of the city or county. For instance, a zoning map might show certain areas zoned as “R-2” and others zoned as “I-1,” with a corresponding ordinance explaining that R-2 zoning allows residential development at up to 1 single-family unit per acre and I-1 zoning allows light industrial development that does not cause adverse effects beyond the property boundaries.
If you want to do something on a piece of property that is not allowed under the zoning for that property, you have two choices:
Apply for re-zoning to change the zoning of the property, or
Apply for a “variance,” which is asking the county or city for an exception to the normal zoning rules for your property.
Any rezoning of property in Georgia “must be consistent with the land use plan in [a city or county’s] Comprehensive Development Plan.” The rationale behind this rule is that comprehensive development plans should take precedence over zoning ordinances because the plans are the result of more information, research, and planning than zoning ordinances are.
Re-Zoning and Variances
Once the local government passes a zoning ordinance allowing certain land uses in a particular area, landowners may not be denied permission to build those facilities within the zoned area (unless the proposal violates other requirements).
However, if certain land uses are presenting a problem, or if a landowner wants to build something not allowed under the current zoning, zoning ordinances can be amended or property re-zoned to a different classification. Alternatively, the landowner can ask the city or county zoning board to grant a “variance,” which is a one-time exception to the normal rules, rather than changing the zoning entirely.
Re-zoning and variance applications include public participation opportunities that can be an avenue for community members to oppose a potential development that would harm the community.
Public Participation in Zoning, Re-Zoning, and Variance Decisions
Public notice is always necessary when a zoning decision (including a decision to re-zone) is made, although notice requirements are more or less stringent depending on whether the local government itself or a private party initiates the change in zoning.
At a minimum, the government must advertise and hold a public hearing on the proposed action, at which community members can provide comments. Failure to strictly comply with the notice and hearing requirements renders a zoning ordinance passed by a municipality or county void.
In addition, local governments must adopt standards governing their exercise of the zoning power, including identification of factors relevant to making zoning decisions and development of policies and procedures for public hearings. The local government must then publish these standards and make them available for distribution to the public.
Familiarity with those standards is crucial to effectively oppose unwanted land uses, so you should familiarize yourself with your local land use ordinance (see below for more on finding your local ordinances).
In most cases, a property that is the subject of a re-zoning application will have signs notifying readers of the re-zoning application and date of hearing on the application. Keep an eye out for these signs, as they generally are only required to be posted 15 days before the hearing.
In some cases, if the government (rather than a property owner) initiates the rezoning process, the notice will be published in a local newspaper instead of on signs. If you are concerned about a proposed project, or if you think your local government is working with a company seeking to build a facility, make sure to keep an eye on the newspaper as well as on potential sites for development.
Zoning hearings are conducted in various ways in different counties and cities, so the best preparation you can give yourself is to attend another hearing to observe the procedure. Your county or city’s ordinances will usually include some procedures governing hearings. Below, find general notes to keep in mind when preparing:
In some counties or cities, you will need to identify yourself as someone who wants to speak at the beginning of the hearing.
Generally, the side asking for the re-zoning or zoning variance and the side opposing the re-zoning or zoning variance will each have 10 minutes to speak to the zoning board.
If several people want to speak against a proposal, you may have to share the 10-minute time, so it is helpful to form a group and develop a plan for who will speak about different topics.
When speaking to the board, be specific about why you oppose (or support) the proposal in question. You can suggest ways that the proposal could be changed to account for the community’s concerns.
It might be helpful for your group to practice delivering your remarks before the hearing. You can even have other members of your group pretend to be the board and ask questions for the speakers to practice answering.
You may want to have a lawyer who specializes in land use issues represent your group at the hearing.
Although public opposition can defeat a proposed change by the local government, that will not necessarily prevent another re-zoning attempt from occurring in the future. In fact, a local government may consider the same re-zoning proposition at least six months after the re-zoning is defeated.
Since local governments may consider re-zonings any number of times after they are defeated, persistent developers are often able to push forward zoning changes that are detrimental to communities if public opposition is not forceful and constant.
How to Find and Understand Your Zoning Ordinance
Most of the counties and cities in Georgia have zoning ordinances (although not all), and most of those ordinances are available on a website called Municode. You can also find zoning ordinances on the city or county website.
You can browse Municode’s library for Georgia. Not every county or city in Georgia is on Municode. If your locality is not here, check the city or county website. In some rural areas, you may not be able to access the code online at all.
If you are having trouble, call the planning and zoning or administrative office for your county or city and ask for help finding the code of ordinances.
Municode may not provide the most up-to-date code for the city or county you are researching, so it is good practice to check the city or county website as well.
Once you find your county or city’s entry in the Municode library, you may see different options depending on the city or county.
In this section, we will use Douglas County as an example.
This is what you will see when opening Douglas County’s Municode page:
Important note: every county and city will look a little bit different. They do not all use the same terminology or organization, so don’t get discouraged if the Municode page for your area does not look exactly like this. If you get lost, a good place to start is by typing “zoning” into the search box at the top of the screen, which will help you find the location of the zoning ordinances among the county or city’s code.
From here on Municode, scroll through the chapters in the vertical toolbar on the left side of the page—these are the different chapters of ordinances for that county. Look for sections related to land use and development.
For the Douglas County example, click on “Subpart B – CONSTRUCTION, LAND USE AND LAND DEVELOPMENT” and then scroll to “Chapter 111 – UNIFIED LAND DEVELOPMENT CODE.”
That will take you to a page with the ordinances regulating building and land use in Douglas County.
Note: The Douglas County website states that the County website provides the most current copy of the Unified Development Code, not Municode. It is helpful to understand how to navigate Municode but remember to check city and county websites as well!
On Municode, click on “Article II. – DEFINITIONS” in the list of topics on the left side of the webpage.
No matter which county or city’s code you are looking at, a good place to start reading any ordinance is with the definitions section. That way, when you read what uses are or are not allowed in a specific area, you will know what those terms mean.
Now that you know where to find definitions, return to the list of topics on the left side of the page and click “Article III. – ZONING DISTRICTS.”
This section provides the ordinances for zoning and land use for Douglas County. Click “Sec. 111-72. – Zoning districts” to see the 13 districts used in Douglas County and learn about the purpose of each district.
Once you understand what kind of zones the county or city you are researching has, then you need to find out what kind of zoning the specific property or area you are concerned about has. For that, you need a map.
The zoning maps are usually not on Municode – you will need to check the county or city website to find them.
Most other cities and counties will have similar websites – if you’re having trouble, remember you can always call the city or county office of planning and zoning or administrative office and ask where you can see a zoning map.
Once you find the zoning map, you may encounter more terms that are hard to understand. For example, what’s the difference between a “Neighborhood Commercial” zone and a “Community Commercial” zone?
To find those answers, check the sections of the code that cover the zoning map and districts.
Remember, for Douglas County, “Article III – ZONING DISTRICTS Sec. 111-72. – Zoning districts” provides this information.
You will be able to scroll through a list of the different types of zoning in Douglas County and the intended purpose the County had in mind when it set up the system.
Once you know what zone the property you are interested in is, you want to know what uses are allowed or disallowed on that property. To find out, look for a part of the code that contains a list or a table of what is allowed in each zone.
In Douglas County, that’s in “Sec. 111-73. Table of permitted uses.”
Note that the table shows both uses that are always allowed and uses that are allowed with restrictions or a special permit requirement.
Some types of uses are disallowed or strictly regulated across the entire county or city!
Those uses tend to be uses that have some greater impact on the community, which may be polluting or nuisance concerns, so if you are concerned about a proposal that may impact your community, make sure to check those sections of your local government’s land use code.
Note that there are specific restrictions on environmentally hazardous uses in Section 303!
This section is an introduction, and there is a great deal more information in zoning and land use ordinances that might be of interest to your specific community or relevant to a project you are interested in.
When researching these topics, remember that the definitions section is your friend, that the search bar can help you navigate complex and confusingly organized materials, and that you can always call a public interest law firm, like the Turner Clinic or SELC, if you encounter terms or provisions in the code that you don’t understand.
Limitations of Land Use Planning and Zoning
Although the land use planning and zoning processes are powerful tools, they have important limitations.
Reduced Impact on Existing Land Uses
First, land use planning and zoning have little effect on existing uses.
Nearly all planning and zoning laws allow existing uses to remain, even if they are inconsistent with the projected future use of the area.
Building Permits Allow Redevelopment Despite Future Zoning Changes
In addition, once a building permit has been issued, a landowner has a right to develop the property pursuant to that permit even if the zoning subsequently changes.
Even without a permit, a landowner may have a right to develop property pursuant to a plan that has been approved by a county zoning authority — even if the development plan varies from existing zoning — if the landowner has already expended a large sum of money or other resources in reliance on the approved plan.
This means that you should get involved early.
In the context of environmental justice issues, public participation in the initial comprehensive land use planning and zoning phases — before inappropriate projects are proposed — is critical.
Getting involved at the permitting stage of development may be too late. Then, even public participation resulting in the passage of a more restrictive and seemingly preclusive zoning ordinance may not be able to prevent the undesirable facility from being built and operated despite its inconsistency.
 Georgia Rule 110-12-1-.03(5). This element must meet the Development Impact Fee Compliance Requirements, which can be found at http://rules.sos.state.ga.us/gac/110-12-2 (Georgia Rule 110-12-2). The annual update requirement is in Georgia Rule 110-12-2-.03(2)(3) and (4)(c).