What is County Planning?

Mary McMahon

County planning is a form of land use planning which extends over the area of an entire county. A county planning department usually oversees any type of development or land use outside of incorporated areas, with city planning departments handling planning issues in these areas. City and county planning departments often work together to develop a cohesive plan and to address specific areas of concern, such as limited water supplies, worries about urban sprawl, or building in a floodplain.

People living on acreage in a rural community may not welcome industrial zoning changes.
People living on acreage in a rural community may not welcome industrial zoning changes.

Within a county planning agency, people work to create a framework for the county which visualizes the best way in which land could be used. This framework is designed to accommodate eventual growth and spread, accepting that land use rarely remains static. The goal is to create a unified plan which will promote smart growth and intelligent building decisions, rather than allowing haphazard land use to arise.

County planning departments typically establish zoning designations and create zoning maps which are used for the purpose of deciding how land should be used. For example, a rural area may be given rural zoning, which limits density and excludes the establishment of factories and warehouses. Conversely, a strip of land on the edge of an incorporated area may be zoned light industrial, allowing companies to establish light industrial operations near a city or town.

When developing zoning designations, county planners think about how land is being used currently, the type of use which the land could withstand, and the preferences of citizens. In an area with limited water supplies, for example, allowing high density residential zoning or heavy industrial zoning would be unwise, because there would not be enough available water to meet the needs of the users. Likewise, people living in a small rural community in which each home is on at least two acres might not welcome dense development, because it would be out of character for their community.

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County planning offices are generally a part of county government. Their officials may be elected or appointed, depending on the laws where they operate. Training requirements to work on a county planning commission vary. In some regions, county planners may have college degrees in topics like land use, environmental ethics, and public policy, while in others, they may simply be well-established members of the community who are familiar with local issues.

Some operations conducted by county planners include: environmental reviews, zoning enforcement, and the development of long-term land use plans for the county as a whole, as well as specific communities.

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