NHARPC CORNER: True or False: Debunking Common Master Plan Myths

Katie Nelson, Principal Planner, Central NH Regional Planning Commission

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

There are many common statements made about master plans, but have you ever wondered what’s true and what isn’t? For example, do master plans really need to be updated every 5 years? Do master plans serve as legal documents? Does my community need a master plan to adopt a zoning ordinance? Whether you’re new to master planning or just interested in learning more, we hope this information is helpful and gives you a better understanding on common myths regarding master plans in New Hampshire.


The following information is not intended to serve as legal advice and should instead be considered practical planning advice.

First, what is a master plan?

A master plan is a planning document that serves to guide the overall future character, growth, and development of a community. It describes how, why, where, and at what pace a community desires to improve its built environment, economy, and quality of life. It provides guidance to local officials when they are making decisions on budgets, ordinances, capital improvements, zoning, and subdivision and site plan regulations. In simplest terms, a master plan functions much like a roadmap or a blueprint to the future of the community. The plan does not define what can or cannot happen, but rather, it offers a vision of what could occur and includes steps leading to positive community outcomes. New Hampshire RSA 674 relating to Local Land Use Planning and Regulating Powers outlines the purpose and description, preparation, and the adoption and amendments of a community master plan and outlines its necessity to further planning and regulation.

True or False: Master Plans are adopted by the Board of Selectmen (or by Town Meeting).

False! Under NH RSA 674, state statutes, the preparation and adoption of the master plan is the responsibility of the planning board. The planning board also has the responsibility for promoting interest in and understanding of the community’s master plan.

Although the master plan falls under the jurisdiction of the planning board, gathering input and investment from local community officials, volunteers, residents, and stakeholders throughout the development process can lead to greater community support of the plan and implementation of the master plan’s goals.

True or False: Master Plans serve as legal documents.

False! The Master Plan itself is not a legal document and it is not required under law.

However, a master plan provides the legal basis for adopting zoning ordinances and subdivision and site plan review regulations. Innovative land use ordinances cannot be legally adopted nor can certain grants be applied for unless a relatively current master plan is in place. Additionally, when land use appeals are made to Superior Court, the court system relies on the local master plan’s content to make many of its decisions,

True or False: Master Plans are required to adopt a zoning ordinance.

True! A master plan is required for a community to adopt any zoning ordinance, a historic district, or an agricultural or heritage commission. A master plan is also required for the planning board to adopt subdivision and site plan review regulations or a capital improvements program.

True or False: Master Plans need to be updated every 5 years.

False! There is no requirement that a master plan be updated with any designated amount of time. State statutes read “Every planning board shall from time to time update and amend the adopted master plan.” Yet, master plans are most effective when they contain current conditions, trends, and challenges. As a long range plan, a master plan usually covers a time period greater than five years. A master plan can be amended and adopted one section at a time or the document can be updated in its entirety. Many planning boards create committees that include non-planning board members to assist with updating the plan. While the plan’s implementation actions to improve the community should be ongoing, revisions to a master plan are recommended every 5 to 10 years.

True or False: Master Plans are a one size fits all.

False! Master plans are not the same for every community! They can vary in length, layout, and content. According to NH RSA 674:2, a master plan must include two mandatory sections; a vision chapter and a land use chapter. A master plan may also contain optional topics, including but not limited to transportation, housing, energy, natural resources, community facilities, utilities, coastal management, natural hazards, regional concerns, and implementation.

Vision section – A set of statements documenting the desires of the citizens affected by the master plan. Included shall be a set of guiding principle and priorities to implement that vision.
Land use section – Translates the vision into physical development goals. It should note existing demographics and land uses, consider alternative opportunities for future development, and promote the preferred alternative.

Layout of today’s master plans can vary from the traditional chapter layout to shorter, graphical designs. Some plans are displayed in landscape, with two columns using short and direct sections. Plans are also trending towards much shorter length, with some plans totaling less than 50 pages. Optional appendices could be used to display supporting information without cluttering the main body of the master plan.  In addition, there is no rule that states that all chapters of the master plan must be prepared and adopted at the same time.  Many communities will break out the process into multiple phases, and chapters can also be adopted  one at a time.  As master plans are generally posted online, there is no driving reason to adopt the entire document at once.


Katie Nelson is Principal Planner with the Central NH Regional Planning Commission. She can be reached by phone at 603.226.6020 and via email at knelson@cnhrpc.org.