CPTC: Master Plans

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Training course on Master Plans, given by the Citizen Planner Training Collaborative. Presented by Alexis Lanzillotta of Barrett Planning Group.

What is a master plan? The goal of a master plan is to show a community's vision for the future. Many of the elements focus on land use, but master plans can address additional topics. They often include demographic information, an analysis of existing conditions, and implementation strategies and actions. The plan should align with the community's vision for preservation, growth, and change. It should also provide guidance for monitoring progress in the implementation of these goals, and for making amendments.

Why should communities have master plans? Master plans help communities figure out how to achieve their goals. They require balance, having members of the community work together, and working through competing interests. The plan helps set priorities and provide a policy framework for implementing new bylaws, rules, and regulations. Master plans also help private developers understand community goals. The master planning process also provides residents with an opportunity to learn about their community.

The basic steps of creating a master plan include visioning and goal setting, data collection and analysis, evaluating conservation and development opportunities, and implementation, monitoring, and amendments.

Visioning and goals. Develop a vision statement for the community. Public engagement is an important part of this process. Engagements can be broad, or tied to specific plan areas.

Data collection involves reports and analyses of existing conditions, and usually a lot of mapping. Proprietary data has a cost, but can be helpful in these efforts. Listen to the questions people are asking, and collect data to answer them.

Data analysis looks at gaps, trends, and may make comparisons with similar communities. Regional planning associations may have already done some of this work. Analysis also looks at the performance of existing policies.

The next step involves evaluating opportunities. For example, is there conservation land the community would like to preserve, under-performing commercial districts to improve, or desirable greenway connections to make.

Selection involves setting policies, developing strategies, and resolving tensions. Identify areas for growth and preservation and ask "who benefits". Examine both short- and long-term goals.

Implementation should be considered from the onset. Consider what is feasible and who the responsible parties are. Also consider funding, staff, the need for outside assistance, and timelines. Establish plans to monitor and review the implementation process.

Master plans should be treated as living documents, and there should be a process for amending them. For example, new issues can arise, which weren't present when the plan was written.

MGL Chapter 41 Sec 81D contains the statutory description of a master plan.

Question: Can you explain the difference between a vision statement and a mission statement?

Answer: Master plans usually have vision statements; mission statements are more tied to actions. The statute talks about a value statement, but a mission statement can clarify some actions and goals.

Question: Many master plans focus on land use. Can a community include other topics, like education and health?

Answer: The primary intent is for the master plan to address land use, but it can address other topics. For example, the facilities and services section could talk about education.

Chapter 41 Sec 81D lists the elements that a master plan is required to have. These are:

  • Goals and policies.
  • Land use. This section generally focuses on zoning.
  • Housing. This includes existing housing, and a forecast for future needs.
  • Economic development. This might include the expansion or stabilization of a community's economic base.
  • Natural and Cultural resources. This section often includes plans for resource preservation.
  • Open space and Recreation. This section typically ties in with an Open Space and Recreation plan.
  • Services and Facilities. Includes public benefit resources.
  • Circulation. This section addresses roads, transportation, and mobility.

Master plans are not limited to this required set of topics. Common optional elements include (but are not limited to)

  • Governance.
  • Sustainability.
  • Energy.
  • Climate Change. This may include information about extreme weather risks and municipal vulnerability planning.
  • Downtown areas.
  • Villages and neighborhoods.
  • Smart growth.
  • Community health.
  • Arts and culture.

The text of master plans are generally organized around these topics. It's also possible to take a thematic approach, where each theme speaks to one or more topic areas.

Question: Is there a difference between a master plan and a comprehensive plan.

Answer: No, there's not a recognized difference.

Questions: Are master plans strictly focused on the municipal level? Can they look beyond municipal borders to issues that affect the region or state?

Answer: Some things at the state level are worth considering. MBTA Community requirements for example, or access to grants and state resources. Regional approaches are important for infrastructure. Vision and values tend to focus on an individual community.

The next section of the presentation provides guidelines for the main (required) elements of a master plan.

The Vision section talks about a community's long term goals. It also recommends policies to achieve these goals.

The Land use section usually contains a lot of maps: existing uses, zoning districts, open space, and environmentally sensitive areas, for example. MassGIS has data and shape files that can help with this. See MassMapper at url{https://maps.massgis.digital.mass.gov/MassMapper/MassMapper.html}. Look at places where existing uses don't match what's desired. Consider transportation and infrastructure for desired land uses, and the community's capacity to manage change.

The housing section generally contains an inventory. Assessors data can be helpful here, and be sure to consider the local housing authority's portfolio. Include demographic data; MassDOT is a good source for this information, along with the census and American Community Surveys. Consider discrepancies between the cost of housing and income. Consider subsidized housing, and what kinds of housing are allowed by zoning. Look at neighborhoods under stress, as well as those experiencing rapid change. On the policy side, consider current and future needs, compliance with 40B thresholds, policies for neighborhood stabilization, and state programs and incentives that can help. It's often necessary to educate residents about housing needs, barriers, and challenges.

The Economic Development section includes an inventory of businesses and commercial uses, along with characteristics of the labor force. Who are the largest employers and taxpayers is town? Do most people work outside of the community? Does the set of goods and services offered match what people want? How is the local economy related to the regional one? Policies can include labor training, strategies for attracting and retaining businesses, business district revitalization, transportation and infrastructure support, and permitting. It can be useful to case study successes that other communities have had.

Question: Section 81D mentions an "economic supplement" to the master plan. What is the economic supplement, and what is it used for?

Answer: The presenter says she's asked this question of more experience planners, and has never gotten a good answer. She's never seen an economic supplement used.

The Natural and Cultural resources section contains an inventory of such resources in the community. MassMapper and Macris are good sources of data. Communities could map areas that are at risk of sea level rise, along with descriptions of these areas and preservation goals. On the policy side, look at tools that are available for preservation, connections between resources, public education, and available state and federal resources.

The Open Space and Recreation assessment contains maps of the land and facilities. Understand who owns the land, and look at demographic trends that might affect recreational needs. Think about accessibility, and the need to manage and maintain these spaces. Policies can include things like targeted land acquisition.

The Service and Facilities section typically looks at public safety, public works, waste management, water and sewer system capacity, along with compliance and capacity issues. Annual town reports are good source for this data. Are there underutilized facilities? Are service upgrades necessary? Are any of the facilities at risk of extreme weather events?

The Circulation section maps the transportation network and facilities. It documents problem areas, like high crash sites. This section could list programs for street and sidewalk maintenance, policies related to complete streets, areas that might benefit from traffic calming, a discussion of pedestrian and bicycle accommodations, and parking regulations.

On the implementation side, the best plans are those that have tangible outcomes that can be tracked. Connect elements of the implementation plan to the goals that motivated them. Form a Master Plan Implementation Committee. Include specific actions, time-frames, and list responsible parties. Note any needs for expansion or replacement of public facilities. Propose a schedule for bringing zoning amendments to town meeting or the city council.

In addition to having a strategy for doing the implementation, communities should have a strategy for tracking the implementation -- you don't want your master plan to be a document that just sits on a shelf. Bring town staff, departments, boards, and committees along.

Maps in the master plan should have clear titles, legends, scales, citations of what data was used, and a date. Once the maps are produced, it's useful to keep the shape files.

Master plans typically cost $75--150k to produce; there's considerable variation in the cost, depending on the community, the amount of data collection and analysis required, and the amount of public engagement. The local planning board, executive branch, and finance committee should buy into the process. The planning board doesn't need to directly oversee development of the master plan, but they should be aware of what's going on. Master plan work must be conducted according to open meeting laws.

In order for the master plan to be adopted, there's a statutory requirement for the planning board to approve it. Approval by town meeting (or a city council) is optional. Once the plan has been approved locally, it must be submitted to DHCD for state approval.