Best Practices for Improving Local Government Zoning Processes

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Municipalities and counties have traditionally managed zoning permits and variance applications through paper or PDF applications. With online zoning permit software, it's easier to put zoning best practices into place. Best practices for zoning involve maintaining updated ordinances, responding to community goals, rezoning when necessary, and ensuring that zoning decisions are transparent and involve the community.

Why is zoning important to local communities?

From the perspective of someone obtaining a zoning permit as part of a traditional, paper process, it may often seem confusing and arbitrary. It’s important to clearly communicate the goals and outcomes of your local zoning:

  • Supporting sustainable growth
  • Ensuring land use that’s appropriate for and desired by the community
  • Keeping blight and inappropriate or hazardous development at bay

Governments that implement best practices and up-to-date planning and zoning procedures effectively balance the needs of their communities.

By making improvements to zoning ordinances, the review process, training, outreach efforts, and transparency, zoning will become more efficient and more effective for everyone involved.

Here are some important best practices for local zoning:

Recommendations for Best Practices for Local Zoning

Updating the Zoning Ordinance

Too often,  zoning ordinances are archaic and difficult to understand. Take a hard look at how the ordinance is organized and explained. Can someone who has never set eyes on it really comprehend it? Is it clear what types of proposed development are allowed by right, and which may require a hearing and/or a variance?

To create a zoning ordinance that is both understandable and effective, it must be organized and reasonable:

  • Include graphics and maps.  Maps and graphics are highly effective in illustrating and explaining zoning regulations. 
  • Accommodate development trends. How flexible are your zoning regulations? Do they accommodate trends in development and actual rates of growth in your community?
  • Be open to rezoning. Review your current zoning map and identify critical locations that need rezoning in order to achieve your overall vision and accommodate current needs. Of course, rezoning is a heated issue that can quickly lead to divisive results. Community groups often see rezoning as an exclusive practice that panders to developers and will ultimately destroy neighborhoods. Those on the other side argue that outdated zoning stands in the way of more equitable and sustainable communities. Successful rezoning is possible!
  • Seek out best practices. Examine development standards and zoning ordinances of neighboring communities. Here’s an example of a model zoning code from Oregon.

Site Plan Review Process

When the site plan review process is clear, everyone wins. 

But many government agencies have not updated their planning review process. Lengthy and hard to understand documents often result in a confusing and time-consuming process.

Examine your review plan and ensure it’s clear and concise. An efficient review process typically includes: 

  • Pre-application meeting or digital consultation (for complex projects). Before the application for site plan review is submitted, a pre-application meeting facilitates discussion of potential issues surrounding the project and gives applicants a chance to address those issues in advance of a hearing.
  • Organized contact info. This might sound simple, but establishing one point of contact for applicants to ask questions about the review process cuts down on confusion. Effective digital applications on ClearForms streamline this process.
  • Communication overview. Be sure your procedures manual is up to date. It should outline the site plan review process and include a checklist of required items, provisions for administrative approvals for various types of projects, a typical timeline, meeting dates, and a FAQ section. 
  • Automated status updates. Enable applicants to check your website for status updates.


In any industry, training is a critical element of success. Local government zoning teams are no exception. 

Public officials need training to effectively carry out their duties. Without the proper background and understanding of how their decisions impact the community, the effectiveness of your zoning board will be compromised. 

Providing continuing education for both new and seasoned members of your team will enable them to leverage the plentiful resources available for the planning community. By unlocking these insights, your team will be better equipped to effectively support the community. 

Outreach Efforts

Outreach efforts and communication with the community are critically important for the zoning process. When all parties know what to expect, the development approval process becomes much more streamlined and pleasant for everyone involved.

By communicating openly about residential or commercial development, neighboring property owners can be better prepared for what’s to come and the developers can better understand the reasoning and objectives behind the regulations.

Best practices for outreach efforts include:

  • Newspaper or newsletter. Whether it’s in print or online, many take interest in the local paper or newsletter. residents still rely upon their local paper (which may be published or online) for community information.
  • Local website. Be sure to maintain a robust and current website. Include the zoning ordinance, procedural manual for site plan review, contact information, and all relevant maps. Enable applicants to complete application forms online and ensure that data about zoning applications is readily available to and searchable by the public (ClearForms includes built-in open data and public search options). 
  • Open forums. Provide residents, developers, and business owners with the opportunity to provide input and gather information about zoning and development. Extend personal invitations where appropriate. Consider inviting representatives from nearby local governments to participate and share best practices.


Digital workflows for zoning make it much easier to keep the community informed and avoid blindsiding anyone with proposed changes. 

The transparency provided by publicly searchable databases also saves government agencies the time and money that would otherwise be spent trying to manually satisfy open data compliance. 

But open data portals have traditionally been expensive to set up and hard to maintain. Plus, they don't help much with "personal" transparency - the ability permit, application, or request, in real time.

That’s why ClearForms developed automatic and affordable transparency and open data features in its easy-to-use data portal. 

Any applicant or staffer can check the status of an individual application at any time. And our "open by default" Data and Stats tab for each workflow provides straightforward data to your community, but also lets you control which information is and isn't included. With ClearForms, all governments big or small can provide effective open data and transparency to their communities. 

Next Steps in Transforming Your Zoning Process

Improved organization, communication and public participation result in a better understanding of planning principles, your community’s long-term goals with regard to quality development, and the zoning regulations that support those goals. 

The most efficient way to quickly implement the best practices above is to transfer your paper or PDF-based zoning permits to a low-cost and efficient digital platform like ClearForms. 

The ClearForms team can get your government up and running with one of the  zoning workflows that are already helping our clients improve and inspire their local communities. 


Schedule a demo today.
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