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Comprehensive Plans

What is a Comprehensive Plan?​​​

A comprehensive plan is a document, officially adopted by the local governing body, which spells out the manner in which a municipality, county or sub-area of a county must develop. Typically, it includes a map showing proposed future land use and anticipated transportation and community facilities. It also contains policies for protecting environmental features and recommendations for amending local development-related ordinances in a manner that helps achieve the comprehensive plan’s objectives. It must also explain how the jurisdiction will provide water for development and address the handling of sewage treatment plant discharges. Municipal comprehensive plans must explain how anticipated growth will impact community facilities and the environment, and identify areas where growth will occur. The plan has legal significance in that zoning, provision of water and sewer, and other local actions must be consistent with its recommendations. The comprehensive plan may also be known as a “master plan”, “master development plan” or “comprehensive master plan


​​Sector Plan, Regional Plan, Community Plan, Neighborhood Plans

These are comprehensive plans for various parts of a county or municipality. Several counties in Maryland are divided into sub-areas for planning purposes. The plans for those sub-areas are generally much more detailed than the comprehensive plan for an entire county or municipality because they concentrate on smaller areas. These contain recommendations for future development, land use maps, etc., much like the county-wide or municipality-wide plans discussed above, however they are intended to provide more detailed guidance. The sector plans for certain counties, such as Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, also carry legal significance in that future zoning and water/sewer plan amendments must be consistent with these documents. 


Zoning is the way the governments control the physical development of land and the kinds of uses to which each individual property may be put. The areas reserved for specific land uses or building types are known as zones. The zoning of a municipality or county is addressed in a zoning ordinance that lists the zones and the types of development allowed in each, plus the conditions under which they are allowed.

Zoning laws typically specify the areas in which residential, industrial, recreational or commercial activities may take place. For example, an R-1 residential zone might allow only single-family detached homes as opposed to duplexes or apartment complexes. On the other hand, a C-1 commercial zone might be zoned to permit only certain commercial or industrial uses in one jurisdiction, but permit a mix of housing and businesses in another jurisdiction. The ordinance includes the zoning map, which depicts each zone within a jurisdiction, and all landowners can see how their properties are zoned. Zoning is a legal function of local government, and the zoning of land, along with the zoning ordinance and zoning map, and amendments thereto, must be officially enacted by the local governing body.

Rezoning is a change of a property’s zoning classification. This change could be a change in land use, such as a rezoning from residential to commercial development, or a change in density, such as a rezoning from a classification allowing only low-density single-family development to high density classification allowing apartment development. Rezoning generally must be enacted by the local governing body and then only after they follow certain administrative procedures such as hearings. A petition for a rezoning may be initiated by an agency or entity of the local government, the property owner or another party, depending on the jurisdiction. Laws provide for advance notification to the property owner when a rezoning is being considered

Unless a comprehensive rezoning is planned, parcels may only be rezoned based on two criteria and must be approved by the applicant. 

  1. That a substantial change has occurred in the neighborhood, or
  2. A mistake was made during the last comprehensive plan cycle. 

A comprehensive rezoning can be done after the local jurisdiction thoroughly examines all of the land use and development activity and trends for that jurisdiction as a whole or for a particular section, region, or neighborhood. Once that analysis is complete, the local governing body can re-zone one or more properties within the area to be comprehensively re-zoned. Because it has analyzed all land use and development issues, it can rezone without having to prove that a substantial change has occurred in the neighborhood or that a mistake was made during the last comprehensive plan cycle. A comprehensive rezoning is usually initiated by the local jurisdiction itself and often follows an update of a comprehensive plan. The intent is to ensure that the zoning is made consistent with the new plan.

Subdivision Ordinance

The subdivision ordinance governs the subdivision of land into lots or parcels-the creation of subdivisions. The subdivision ordinance, like the zoning ordinance, is also officially adopted and amended by the local governing body. This ordinance contains the procedures by which land is divided into individual building lots, the information that the landowner must provide to the approving authority, which is generally the county or municipal planning commission, and also the manner and format in which this information must be provided. The subdivision ordinance explains what information must be included on the subdivision plat, which shows the location and boundaries of all lots and the location infrastructure and amenities in a residential development, or the site plan, which shows this information for industrial, institutional and commercial developments. The subdivision ordinance often contains requirements for the facilities that must be provided in a development, to include specifications for roads, sidewalks, cul-de-sacs, gutters, utility lines, setbacks, street lighting and other amenities.

Planning Commission

An appointed body that advises the municipal or county governing body on all matters related to the planning of growth and development, including the comprehensive plan, zoning, subdivision and other issues. It generally has the authority to approve subdivision plats and other development plans. In most cases, the planning commission advises concerning proposed rezoning, variances, special exceptions, amendments to, and redrafting of, comprehensive plans and various development-related ordinances. The planning commission generally oversees the drafting of the comprehensive plan and amendments thereto, holds public hearings and advises the governing body as to whether to adopt. 

Board of Appeals

The Board of Appeals appointed body that hears and decides on variances and special exceptions to the zoning code. Specific criteria for the BOA decision are typically stated within the zoning code-hardship or practical difficulty and uniqueness. The BOA will also hear cases asking for an interpretation of the zoning code and complaints that a municipal or county government has made a mistake in the exercise of its planning and zoning powers. The board of appeals also rules on the following: Special Exception-a request to establish a specific use that would not normally be allowed in a zoning district, but which may be allowed if certain conditions are present. These particular uses and their conditions must be spelled out in the zoning ordinance. The special exception use must be compatible with the existing neighborhood.


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