What is a Master Plan?

In the simplest terms, a master plan is a planning document that serves to guide the overall character, physical form, growth, and development of a community. It describes how, why, where, and when to build or rebuild a city or town. It provides guidance to local officials when they are making decisions on budgets, ordinances, capital improvements, zoning and subdivision matters, and other growth-related issues.

A master plan also provides an opportunity for community leaders to look ahead, establish new visions and directions, set goals, and map out plans for the future. Properly done, a master plan should describe where, how, and at what pace a community desires to develop physically, economically, and socially. In short, a master plan functions much like a roadmap or a blueprint; it is a guide to the future.

A master plan is also a reference document. It contains the appropriate maps, charts, and supporting text to present the recommendations of the planning board and offers guidelines for community decision-makers.

A master plan also serves as a summary of local actions. It acts as a continuing reminder of what a community has agreed to accomplish within a specified time period. A master plan should not be engraved in stone, though; it can, and should, be reviewed and updated as conditions change within a community.

A master plan should also be a complete source of information about current conditions and trends within a community, a summary of the base data related to the town’s development. By presenting coordinated policies on such topics as future growth and development, transportation, environmental protection, community facilities, and fiscal management, the master plan can help officials deal with change responsibly and guide growth in an orderly, constructive manner (NH OSP, Technical Bulletin 3, page 1).