Real Estate Subdivision and Zoning Approval Process

There are many ways to develop real estate, but if you’re doing something more than renovating a fixer upper, like making structural changes, etc… you’re going to be needing permission from the city to move forward on your plans.

Before you can subdivide or develop a property, first you’ll have to submit plans to the local government for review and approval.

This happens in stages and can be a lengthy process depending on how complex your plans are. Again, this more for developing land than for rehabbing a fixer upper house.

You won’t need the city’s permission to fix a roof, redo the walls, carpeting, overhaul the yard, or to repaint a house.

But if you’re adding a room, knocking down a wall, building a garage out back, turning your downstairs into a mother-in-law apartment, or adding square footage of any kind to your house, then you will need to go through the city first.

Land Developing, Subdividing, Zoning Approval Process

As we mentioned in our article on real estate zoning, your engineer will prepare the plans in accordance with the requirements of the applicable subdivision and land development ordinance. This ordinance contains provisions relating to a variety of issues.

These include construction and design standards for public site improvements (e.g., streets, curbs, sidewalks, parking spaces, landscaping, utilities and drainage), safety concerns (angles at intersecting streets and lighting), and general matters such as data to be shown on the plans, scale, paper size, and submission deadlines.



The plans are scrutinized by a group of people and agencies. First on the list is the municipal engineer who, after examining the plans to make sure that they comply with all applicable ordinances, issues a review letter setting forth comments and recommendations.

In addition to the engineer, typical players in the approval process consist of local/county land planning agencies, water and sewer authorities, state environmental and transportation departments, and the municipal manager and solicitor.

The review letters generated by these people provide the structure for the discussions between you as applicant and the municipality, and this is an ongoing dialogue frequently marked by give and take and negotiation on both sides.


Although the ordinance specifies the number of plan submissions that must be made, usually these consist of 3 separate plans. The Conceptual or Sketch Plan shows the proposed layout or development and the relationship of the property to its immediate surroundings.

The benefit of preparing this plan, even when it’s not required, is to give the municipality an overview of the development on one sheet of paper. This plan can be used to address some basic issues like the location of the entrance to the development, alignment of proposed and existing streets, and existing features that may impact how the project can be configured.

The Preliminary Plan actually consists of a set of very detailed plans drawn to scale. These depict all of the basic existing physical features of the site (such as soil types, topography, floodplain, vegetation, wetlands, surveyed boundaries and existing structures).

Your engineer would then prepare a series of overlays illustrating exactly how the parcel is to be carved up or developed. So, for instance, the plans would show the boundaries of proposed lots and building envelopes, parking lots and structures, locations of new streets and utility lines, regrading and landscaping, and management of storm water to prevent flooding and erosion.

In short, the Preliminary Plan shows on paper how the property looks now and what it would look like when developed. The Final Plan contains all of the data on the Preliminary Plan together with revisions necessitated by comments from the reviewers.


The decision-maker is usually the governing body of the municipality. (This depends on the provisions of the particular state land use laws.)

In addition to public meetings held by the elected officials and the planning commission, private informal meetings or work sessions can frequently occur between the municipality and the applicant to brainstorm concepts, problems and solutions, discuss review comments, and negotiate terms and conditions of approval.

Each municipality is unique and the cast of players changes over time. Relationships and mindsets color official actions. Often the process takes on the appearance of a “board game”. Attempts by applicants to progress around the board towards their goals seem to be thwarted by waiting for review letters and responding to them, or by spending time, effort and money revising and resubmitting plans.

The length of time from application to Final approval varies widely, ranging from a couple of months to several years. Factors that impact the timeline include the preparedness of the developer team, the frequency of municipal meetings, the proposed development itself, public opinion and finally just plain politics.

The elected officials examine the plans, take review comments into consideration and vote to either grant or deny approval. Under the applicable laws, development applicants have certain rights and protections.

For example, when the governing body grants approval of your Preliminary Plan, you may be guaranteed approval of the Final Plan on the same terms and conditions that were imposed at the prior approval stage. In other words, the municipality gets only one bite of the apple, so it cannot raise new issues or conditions at final approval that it didn’t impose when it granted preliminary approval.

The particular state law might also provide that once you had submitted your Preliminary Plan and while it was in the review and approval process, the municipality could not require your property to conform to changes in the zoning and subdivision ordinances that were enacted after the date you submitted your plan.

Approval conditions usually range from minor revisions of plans to major considerations such as your having to obtain approvals, waivers or permits from other reviewing agencies. One condition will likely involve a contract between you (or the builder you sell to) and the municipality requiring that security be posted.

This insures that the local government will have the funds necessary to complete installation of the public site improvements in the future if the developer becomes unable to do so. Once this and all the other approval conditions are satisfied, you should be able to record the plan in the county courthouse, apply for building permits, and actually start installation of improvements and building of structures on the property.