Administering the Zoning Ordinance - Do You Provide Good Customer Service?


Charles Eckenstahler AICP and Craig Hullinger AICP


Many planning and zoning practitioners have found that good zoning enforcement starts with helping applicants understand the goals of the community, ordinance provisions, and application procedures.  Surveys indicate that almost ninety percent of residents recognize that the use of land and building construction is governed by local ordinances.  These surveys show that less than twenty percent of residents ever read or process an action before the plan commission or zone board of appeals.

It is easy to realize that most applicants have limited knowledge of the ordinance and procedures for requesting consideration of a zoning ordinance amendment or the approval of a variance, special use  or any other decision rendered by the plan commission or zone board of appeals.  How a community administers the ordinance, including assisting an applicant to complete the application and prepare for any presentations, is viewed as an important duty of the zoning and/or planning staff.


Bill Ernat, Community Development Director for the Village of Homewood, was interested in determining the level of satisfaction applicants felt for action before the Plan Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals over the past two years.   “We recently completed an update to our Comprehensive Plan and are scheduled to begin an update of our zoning ordinance.  We wanted to assess how well our application and staff procedures work so we could make changes if necessary.”

A nine question survey was prepared and sent to over 70 individuals who sought zoning action.  Twenty-nine were returned for a 40.3 percent response rate.

The survey was designed to collect several specific items of information, including the type of action  requested by the applicant, how complex was the application process, appropriateness of comments from the Plan Commission (or ZBA), and their satisfaction rating of the overall process.


1. Almost 65 percent of the applicants sought approval for a zoning variance or special use permit, with over 24 percent to locate an accessory structure on their property.

2. Over 75 percent of the applicants stated they had little or no difficulty in completing the application paperwork.

3. Almost 90 percent stated staff was helpful and assisted in gathering information for the application.

4. Over 96 percent stated the paperwork reasonable and, in their opinion, satisfactory for the process.

5. Over 72 percent stated they were very prepared, with help from staff, for the oral presentation.

6. That 63 percent said they understood all of the procedures and another 33 percent most of the procedures.

7. While 46 percent noted that some questions and comments  made during the oral presentation were inappropriate, 54 percent noted that question and comments were appropriate.

8. That 96 percent indicated satisfaction with the application and process procedures.


Overall, the Village earned a satisfaction rating of 3.3 on a rating scale of 1 to 4; with four being an excellent rating.  In comparison to other communities, this is significantly better than similar communities surveyed by the authors.  

The results indicate that staff consults with the applicant, educates them and helps them through the process.  The applicant most often receives a positive response to their request, in part due to staff providing guidance and advice concerning what is allowable under the terms of the ordinance, desired by Village policy, and what has been  approved in the past.  This administrative assistance reduces the number of applications for variances and/or special uses.  This guidance leads to a higher approval rate and ultimately greater customer satisfaction.


Mayor Richard Hofeld was especially interested in the last survey question.  Over 80 percent indicated support for the statement that “Strict Zoning Ordinance provisions and careful administration by the Plan Commission, Zone Board of Appeals, and Village Board of Trustees has contributed to the high quality development for which the Village of Homewood is noted.”  

According to Hofeld, “We are delighted with the results of the survey.  Customer service ans satisfaction is just as important in the public sector as in the private.  The Trustees and I are pleased that Village staff does a good job helping applicants through the process.  We intend to used the results of the survey to improve our ordinance and the approval process as we complete the zoning ordinance update.”

About the authors

Chuck Eckenstahler is 35 year veteran of municipal planning, economic development and real estate consultant serving clients in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, and a past contributor to the Illinois Municipal Review. He teaches economic development subjects in the Graduate School of Business at Purdue North Central, Westville, Indiana and serves on the faculty of the Lowell Stahl Center for Commercial Real Estate Studies at Lewis University, Oakbrook Illinois. He can be contacted at:


Craig Hullinger AICP has 35 years of experience in economic development, city planning, and transportation planning. He is a Partner in the consulting firm Ruyle Hullinger and Associates. He was formerly the Economic Development Director of the City of Peoria, Illinois, the Planning Director of Will County, and the Village Manager of Olympia Fields, Minook, and University Park. He is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and Lamda Alpha. He can be contacted at: 
309-634 5557

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