A Rose by Any Other Name ...

Jeffrey A. Gordon, M.D.

Have you thought much about the words and phrases people use? What are their definitions? Planning and zoning commissions think about these things because words and phrases can have legal meanings, impacts and consequences.

Your town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) envisions the goals of guiding your town’s growth, its zoning/subdivision regulations achieve those goals, and applicable town ordinances and state/federal laws set the framework for how these processes are used. A bottom line denominator of them all is the written words and phrases that comprise them. Because a planning and zoning commission has unique legislative, administrative and enforcement responsibilities that affect the entirety of your town and the specifics of each neighborhood, paying careful attention to words is of utmost importance in balancing properly many different and at times competing interests.

It may seem philosophical or mundane, but how a word is defined and how it is used can have real-world effects, intentional and unintentional. Having legal, practical, commonsense, appropriate, and acceptable definitions for words and phrases in the context of the intent and purpose of the regulations and planning documents, is fundamentally necessary. That is why all zoning/subdivision regulations have definition sections for many words.

People prepare and present land use proposals based in part on these definitions and how these words are used in the regulations. If definitions do not exist, are difficult to understand or mismatched with the uses of the words, then an applicant may inadvertently present something that is not consistent with the intent of the regulations. A planning and zoning commission could notice this and correct the situation, thereby helping the applicant and protecting the town. But, what if a wily applicant sees this as a loophole opportunity? The applicant could then do something intentionally contrary to the intent of the regulations, yet a planning and zoning commission may not have a legal recourse to prevent it from happening. If it seeks a legal redress of the situation, it could be costly and time consuming.

This highlights why your town’s planning and zoning commission should take time to review and to prepare a good set of definitions. The work I do on Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission involves literally going through a long list of definitions in alphabetical order. Many hours and meetings are spent doing this, but the end result is strengthening the words used in the zoning/subdivision regulations. When I use Woodstock’s POCD, zoning/subdivision regulations, town ordinances, state statutes, and other regulatory and advisory documents to help me decide upon land use applications, I reference the definitions of the words I read.

Here are some examples. What does “home occupation”, “commercial” or “industrial” mean regarding how to decide whether or not to allow a business to start up or expand in a certain part of town? How is a “setback” defined in allowing where on a parcel of land a building or structure can be placed relative to an abutting property? What is the definition of “street” when reviewing the engineering plans and layout maps of a new subdivision of houses or a commercial center? How do state statutes describe “subdivision” and “resubdivision” of land vis-à-vis the process that is to be followed in determining if such can be done and how they can be done? What is meant by “wetlands”, “watercourses”, “buildable land” and “unbuildable land” when looking at a development map or site plan? How are “dwelling”, “residential”, “single family”, “multi-family”, and “accessory apartment” defined when seeking to understand what can be built in a specific type of zoning district?

William Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, implying that no matter what something is called, it still is the same thing, since things are what they are at their basic essence. Call a rose a “red dandelion”, yet it still retains all that makes up a rose. However, in the world of legal reviews and court decisions, this is not always true. If something is defined a certain way, especially if defined by very strict terms, then another thing similar to it, but not exactly the same as it, can be viewed as indeed being different. If a rose is defined as having a red color, prickles on its stem, five petals to its flower, and six inches for the length of its stem, and someone shows a plant that looks like a rose, but is pink and has four petals, then by strict legal definitions, their plant may not be viewed as a rose. The planning and zoning commission may have a set of regulations pertaining the use of roses, but the intent of its regulations could become thorny, tangled or thwarted by applying too strict a definition for “rose”.

This is an oversimplification, but I think my point is made. Sometimes strict definitions are needed to differentiate similar but different types of land uses and structures. Other times, general definitions suffice so as to broadly define a category in which there are degrees of land uses and structures that share a clear common theme. There are times that state laws or legal rulings dictate what definitions must be used. And, there are times that plain common sense prevails in using widely accepted and time-tested definitions.

So, the next time you happen across your town’s zoning/subdivision regulations (they are usually easily accessible on-line), look through the definitions used. You will gain a better understanding as to why words are chosen and how they are used. You may still view different types of roses as just all being roses, but you can see how the similarities and differences things have with each other can create challenges for your town’s planning and zoning commission in the work it does in making land use decisions.

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