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Major/Minor Changes to Preliminary Plats in Chesterfield County

By Greg Koontz, PE, President, Koontz-Bryant, P.C.

In May Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors approved changes to the Subdivision Ordinance clarifying the definition of Major and Minor changes to a Preliminary Plat.  Preliminary Plats are required to be approved prior to the submittal of construction plans for any residential development greater than 50 lots.  The intent behind these changes is to allow more flexibility in examining amendments of approved preliminary plats on a case by case basis. Greg Koontz and George Bryant participated over the 18 month process along with leaders from Chesterfield County, other private engineering firms, developers and the Home Builders Association of Richmond.

Per Chesterfield County, the amended definitions of Major and Minor changes are as follows:

Major Change – A significant alteration that changes the overall design intent, or impacts surrounding properties, land use of the subject property or compliance with this chapter, such as road creation, realignment, or extension; VSMP and CBPA compliance; BMP relocation affecting adjacent property; impact upon or modification to environmental features; major water and wastewater facility relocation.

Minor Change - Any alterations not defined as or determined by the plans review team to be a Major Change as long as the alteration does not conflict with applicable provisions of the ordinance.

The previous regulation stipulated that a “Major” change was any modification as small as the change of “one” lot.  This definition of a Major change carried quite a burden for those developing projects with multiple sections. For example: Lot absorption rates for larger projects in the Richmond may have taken 10 years or longer after the original approval by the Board of Supervisors to complete the development.  When zoning is approved by the Board of Supervisors for a project, all the requirements for the development of that project are in place within the zoning regulations in effect at the time.  Developers begin the process of development by securing financing and determining how to take the development to the next step by refining early zoning concepts into the Preliminary Plat stage. Having to resubmit Preliminary Plats due to “Major” changes can cause great delays in completing these projects. In Chesterfield County, the status of a Tentative Plan modification being defined Major versus Minor triggered staff to require all conditions from the current zoning ordinance to be used versus the requirements in place at the time of the original zoning.  If the change was deemed a Major change, all current ordinance changes automatically went into effect for the proposed modification to the tentative plan.  For many projects, these changes included wetland setbacks increasing by 10’, floodplain setbacks increasing 10’, and some arterial buffers increasing by 50’. From a developer’s perspective, these issues can create a scheduling and financial nightmare for the project.

Over the 18 month period, many committee meetings were held to discuss the issues, present examples and gain understanding from the perspective of both sides.  All parties agreed that large projects, which are not designed at the time of the Tentative Plan, will go through some changes during the preparation of final designs and construction plans. Final construction plans are prepared based on field survey information, county design requirements and constructability issues that evolve throughout the life of the project. 

The final version of the amendment grants staff more flexibility to review the proposed Preliminary Plat modification and determine if it really was a “Major” change that impacts the adjacent properties or the overall development as previously approved.  This also provides the design community greater flexibility to provide cost effective and creative solutions to environmental and other construction related issues, including the modification of multiple lots and potential road alignment shifts.

The Preliminary Plat process is a ministerial process (determining the existence of facts and applying them as required by law, without any discretion). This process is used to determine that all the requirements as set out in the zoning ordinance, specific conditions, and proffers placed on the case are in compliance so development can proceed.  In many jurisdictions, the Preliminary Plat process has become somewhat blurred and less ministerial from a processing standpoint.  Participants appreciated Chesterfield County’s willingness to work with all parties involved to get this amendment approved. For more information contact Greg Koontz by email or at 804-740-9200.