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How to Landscape

How to Pass Design Review

Simple tricks to get your landscape plan approved

  • While the design review process can be challenging, just a little preparation can help you come out on top.

While most people aren't thrilled to go through the extra step of design review, it's a necessary part of the permit process for a lot of new construction. Whether ensuring green building techniques are used, keeping a consistent look within a neighborhood, or just making sure that certain minimum standards are met, the process aims to keep property values high and preserve the character of a town. If your project must pass design review, never fear; these tips will guide you through a swift approval process.

Create a checklistEach neighborhood, city and county has different rules, which makes it complicated to keep track of what's required. Because of that, it's a good idea to create a checklist from the documentation provided (either the Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions for a neighborhood, or the Land Use Code and General Plan for city and county review boards). Here are some of the elements you may need to specify on your plan.

Percentage of property covered in landscaping. Many cities regulate what minimum percentage of the site must be landscaped, as well as how much of that area may be taken up by lawn. Use a CAD program or careful measurements to determine the square footage of planted areas and lawn as opposed to home, driveway, deck and patios.

Plant sizes at maturity. When landscaping on the coast, there are often restrictions on the ultimate height of plants in order to preserve the view for neighbors. In other areas, there may be a minimum tree or shrub size required in order to screen parking areas or soften the visual impact of the architecture.

Plant sizes at planting. In order to ensure that all of the plants survive the landscape installation process, it's common to see minimum pot sizes or the minimum caliper of trees specified.

Types of plant and material which may be used. Many municipalities require native or water-preserving plants to make sure new construction is friendly to the environment. Some neighborhoods take the opposite route and specify lawns or a limited list of ornamental plants from which to choose. Guidelines for hard surfaces can include permeability, color, pattern and type of materials allowed.

Irrigation or maintenance plan. When an irrigation or maintenance plan is requested, there's no need to go into exhaustive detail; a couple of paragraphs explaining the basics are good enough. The real reason most boards request these details is so they have legal recourse if the property becomes an eyesore or a public nuisance due to lack of care.

When in doubt, include more information in your plans rather than less. Almost every design review process will require a fully-detailed plan drawn to scale, with individual plants and materials specified, and with construction and grading details present.

Write a cover letterMost review boards focus more on the home architecture or site issues such as drainage or parking, rather than on the landscaping. That doesn't mean the landscape plan isn't important; indeed, a poorly-designed landscape plan can delay approval of the entire project. But it does mean that the people reviewing the landscaping plan may not be landscapers themselves.

How can you use this information to your advantage? Include a cover letter which discusses the details of your landscaping plan. Use language that reflects back to the CC&Rs or Land Use Code regulations you're following, and share how you have addressed each issue in your plan.

For example, you could write, "As per LUC §9.34.050, all trees in parking area will reach at least 20 feet in height at maturity. White birch, Betula jaquemontii, reaches 35 feet in height at maturity, while Italian buckthorn, Rhamnus alaternus, reaches 25 feet in height at maturity." This makes it clear to the review board that each issue has been addressed in a professional manner.

The cover letter is also a great opportunity to explain all of the special touches in your proposed landscape. If the review board can see the plan was created by a professional who takes pride in their work, it's easier for them to trust that the installed landscape will look as good in person as it does on paper.

Break the rules with styleIf the CC&Rs or LUC was drafted by a group with little imagination, you may find yourself bound by rules that run the gamut from distasteful to downright irresponsible. Some neighborhoods have banned native plants, specified a small list of approved shrubs from which to choose, or even mandated water-hogging lawns! However, just because the rules are there, doesn't mean you can't bend or break them. Most review boards have the discretion to approve any plan they like. The key is to help them understand your vision and fall in love with it.

Include photos, renderings and documentation. Think of your landscape plan as a sales presentation, and make it overwhelmingly beautiful. For example, if you dream of getting rid of your mandated lawn and growing native plants in the front yard, create a photo collage of the plants you'll use in your new landscape. Show a 3-D or artist's rendering of how the landscape will look on your property, so the people on the review board can visualize it. And be sure to include any facts or statistics that may help your case, such as whether nearby towns are encouraging native landscaping or banning lawns.

Show precedent for your plan. Even if there are elements of your plan for which there is no precedent, by showing the ways in which your plan fits with the neighborhood, you make it easier for the review board to say "yes". By using paint colors, plants and materials that neighbors have used successfully, you show that your landscape will have a feeling of continuity, even though some elements may be different.

Be prepared with alternative ideas. If there are elements of your plan that may not pass review, be prepared with some "second best" ideas to share. Sometimes, the review board is willing to approve alternative ideas on the spot, and if you're ready to present additional drawings, you can help guide the direction of discourse in the meeting and come up with win-win solutions that everyone can agree on.

Though most people are reluctant to participate in the design review process, you may be surprised to find out how passionate the review board members are about helping you find solutions that fit the rules yet preserve the integrity of your project. By keeping a friendly spirit of compromise during the meetings, you'll be most likely to leave with a landscape plan everyone's happy with.

How to Successfully Work with Conservation Commissions and Architectural Review Committees

Contributing Author:

Genevieve Schmidt, contributing writer for Landscaping Network and owner of North Coast Gardening

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