The Comprehensive Plan (Master Plan): A Primer for Real Estate Investors

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Most real estate investors have heard of zoning and subdivision regulations and may even have a basic understanding of what they do and how they can impact their investments.  There is however another document that may be decades old guiding the drafting and implementation of those two land use controls, that is the comprehensive plan.

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What is a Comprehensive Plan / Master Plan?

The comprehensive plan, aka, master plan, general plan, land use plan or master development plan is a document that is prepared by a local jurisdiction to guide growth and development.  It is generally a long term plan looking 10 to 20 years into the future.  Comprehensive plans can be found at many levels, from neighborhoods, to cities and counties on up to the state level.   These plans often have lofty goals such as protecting public health and safety, improving circulation, providing adequate services, etc, etc.  Such plans may be years in the making and take a lot of resources to complete.  However once completed, they can carry a lot of weight and thus can affect our properties and plans as real estate investors.

The comprehensive planning process usually involves a research phase where data is collected and correlated, a public input phase where input is gathered from the public and an approval/adoption phase where the plan is adopted and approved by the local governing body.  The plan usually contains a combination of goal and objective statements with recommendations on how to achieve them along with supporting maps and other documentation.

Why Should Real Estate Investors Care?

The comprehensive plan directly affects many real estate activities since it is a plan for future growth and development.  Here are some basics.

  • In some states, Florida for example, the plan can have force of law and it can be very difficult to get anything done which is contrary to the plan.  Here in Tennessee, every piece of land is labeled for growth or no growth.  So while you may be able to develop on one side of the road you may not be able to on the other (I have seen this happen!).  Imaging buying land on one side of the road to develop because you see the other side of the road being developed and then being told no, you cannot develop that.
  • The comprehensive plan can make it much more time consuming to gain approval for development projects as they will have to be reviewed for conformity to the plan, sometimes even at the state level.  This process can add months or even years to a development review process.  Time is money folks!
  • Trying to change a comprehensive plan is literally like trying to get an act of congress.  If what you want to do does not conform to the plan you are in for a long uphill battle.
  • The plan will guide zoning and subdivision decisions.  You may be able to develop apartments in one place and not another.  One acre lots may be allowed here but only five acre lots there.  That land over there is reserved for conservation uses.  You get the picture.  It will all depend on what the plan says.
  • The plan will guide utility extensions.  Will your land be served by sewer or not?
  • The plan will guide road and road improvement decisions.  Where will the next major intersection be?  Will the parking lot in front of that commercial building you just bought by condemned and taken to widen the road it fronts on?  How will the removal of your parking lot impact your business?

As you can see, the comprehensive plan could be a very important document to real estate investors.  At the very least, you could use it to see where development will be directed and perhaps get ahead of the curve and purchase land to hold (if you can afford to wait a while.).  On the other hand, it can impact your plans for your property and perhaps hamper your ability to do business.

Wherever you invest, find out what your jurisdiction is doing and what tools it uses to guide its development decisions.    Not every jurisdiction has a comprehensive plan, but most of the larger ones do.  If your jurisdiction has a plan, take a little time to look it over.   You might just see an opportunity that others may have missed.   You may also find plans that affect your property that you were not aware of.  I have witnessed planners tell befuddled property owners, “That has been in the plan for ten years, I‘m sorry you did not check it before you purchased the property.”

Also, you need to stay in tune with what you locality is doing.  If you hear or read about a comprehensive planning process that is underway, get involved or at the very least find out what is going on.  You need to speak up to protect your property and your rights.  Only you can protect your property rights!  Plus the old adage is true; the squeaky wheel does get the grease.  So make yourself heard or be left out of the plan.

Photo: Wyman Laliberte

About Author

Kevin Perk

Kevin Perk is co-founder of Kevron Properties, LLC with his wife Terron and has been involved in real estate investing for 10 years. Kevin invests in and manages rental properties in Memphis, TN and is a past president and vice-president of the local REIA group, the Memphis Investors Group.


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