Foundations: comprehending comprehensive plans

Posted 6/1/22

“Foundations” is a monthly series examining the fundamentals of local government, talking about how government works and how it impacts people’s lives at the local level. This week, …

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Foundations: comprehending comprehensive plans


“Foundations” is a monthly series examining the fundamentals of local government, talking about how government works and how it impacts people’s lives at the local level. This week, “Foundations” is examining the function of a comprehensive plan.

Take the town or township you live in and imagine a perfect version of its future. What would transportation look like in this perfect future? What kinds of recreational opportunities would exist? Where would people work, live and have dinner, and in what kinds of buildings would those activities take place?

As theoretical as those questions sound, they’re all ones a community asks itself as it sits down to write a comprehensive plan.

It starts there

In its most familiar form, a comprehensive plan is a document that establishes a community’s vision for its development.

That form isn’t the only one that exists. A comprehensive plan can be as informal as a general understanding based on the body of regulations a town has produced, or as artistic as a movie. Whatever form it takes, the comprehensive plan represents a community’s consensus about its future.

The process of building that consensus carries as much weight as the final plan, said Tom Shepstone, a planner who has worked with towns throughout the Upper Delaware on the creation of their plans.

“It’s not the plan, it’s the process. By going through the process of debating things and discussing things and surveying opinions and having community meetings, I think you help assuage a lot of the conflict.”

Each town and township goes about assembling this consensus differently. Elected officials can work on the plan as representatives of their communities. Members of the community can show up at public hearings and give their input, or be chosen to serve on a comprehensive planning committee.

What a community wants

A selection of goals from comprehensive plans throughout the Upper Delaware


“Encourage and support programs, events and partnerships that celebrate and promote the town’s cultural heritage and the arts.”—Tusten

“Encourage more community events with the potential to serve residents and simultaneously attract tourism by redrafting restrictive regulations on camping for short periods of time.”—Deerpark


“Promote the development of new activities to expand employment opportunities and improve the town’s tax base.”—Cochecton

“Promote job-creating economic activity including, but not limited to those industries with small-scale land use impacts and high job growth potential.”—Deerpark


“Conserve the quality and quantity of land, air, water, forest, wildlife, mineral, historic and scenic resources for the use and enjoyment of both residents and visitors.”—Highland

“Conserve natural resources and open space and use the resources in a way to sustain the area’s economy, including maintaining a strong connection to the Delaware River.”—Westfall


“Encourage a range of quality housing for all ages and income levels while maintaining the character of the community.”—Tusten

“Provide for secure and sound housing in a variety of types and densities.”—Westfall

Land use

“Recognize forest land and other open land, and agricultural land, as important elements of the local economy, character and scenic setting.” —East Central Wayne County (Damascus, Manchester and Oregon)

“Utilize mixed-use development appropriately to achieve a combination of commercial uses, low-density residential and open space that complements the landscape of the town.”—Lumberland


“Expand the economic potential of the town by developing fast, safe and efficient transportation ties with the surrounding region.”—Cochecton

“Promote the safe, quiet, efficient and sustainable circulation of people and goods throughout the town and to sustain a strong road infrastructure.”—Highland

When the Town of Tusten performed its most recent comprehensive plan update, working with consultant Peter Manning, it sent out a survey,  asking residents to weigh in with demographic information and their hopes for the town’s direction. Four hundred and one responses came back, and their votes and their short answers are included in an appendix to the plan.

“It’s not a true expression of a community unless there’s thorough involvement,” said Manning.

Poems, prayers and promises

Every town and township writes its comprehensive plan differently; each plan will include different elements tailored to its respective community’s needs.

A typical comprehensive plan includes three things, says Shepstone: background studies about an area’s land use and community needs; goals and objectives for a community’s development; and recommendations and plans for accomplishing those goals.

The studies in a comprehensive plan can take place before or after the development of its goals. If done before, they can help a town or township understand what its community needs and write goals that reflect those needs; if after, they can help a town or township understand how to accomplish the goals it has already set.

The goals included within a comprehensive plan help lay out the future of a community’s development. They take into account a town or township’s current strengths and weaknesses, examining areas such as cultural resources, community services and economic development and suggesting goals for the community’s improvement in those areas. See sidebar for examples from local comprehensive plans.

Once a town’s goals are set, and the studies to inform those goals are in place, the plan can explore recommendations for achieving them.

Getting it done

The work of executing those recommendations is perhaps the most important part of the comprehensive planning process. If previous stages are about visioning a town’s future, this phase is about reaching out and pulling that future into the present.

“When you finish the plan, it’s the beginning of doing the things that you’ve spelled out,” says Manning. “It’s a very significant document, but at the same time, now you’re ready to get going.”

Towns can use zoning regulations to execute those goals that have to do with development, guiding where in a community certain types of construction should take place.

There’s no requirement that a town adopt new zoning regulations after it adopts a comprehensive plan. (Manning says he often faces the misconception that there is.) State statutes do require that zoning regulations be based upon a comprehensive plan, to ensure that they are drafted in such as way as to serve the community.

Regulations aren’t the only way a town or township can execute on the goals of its comprehensive plan.

A local government can seek outside funding for projects to enhance its community, referencing its comprehensive plan. Grant awardees often ask if a town or township has a comprehensive plan when they apply, says Manning, and follow up by asking if a project is referenced in that plan. If both questions have “yes” as their answer, an applicant has a leg up on their competition.

Towns and townships can also partner with other municipalities or organizations to achieve their goals. Around one-third of the recommendations in Tusten’s comprehensive plan can be achieved by the town on its own initiative, says Manning. The other two-thirds require collaboration with outside bodies.

However those recommendations are enacted, the comprehensive plan ensures that they’re guided toward a specific end: the creation of a more perfect community.

See below for earlier articles in the series:

What does a supervisor do?

The role of a town board

foundations, comprehensive plans, towns, townships, community vision


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