Land use zoning regulations may seem abstract, but they are in fact very much real … and all around you. Your town uses these hands-on tools to achieve the goals of your community’s master planning documents, such as a Plan of Conservation and Development, to guide future growth. It all impacts the private land you own and the public areas you use.
You need places to live; streets, public infrastructure and municipal services to use; industry, manufacturing and commerce for products, services, jobs, and tax revenue; agriculture for food; and open spaces and recreational venues to enjoy. There is limited land in your town to physically put all of these things, yet you want to benefit from them all. As a result, various land use activities invariably interact or interfere with each other.
Traditional zoning is based upon the primary goal of protecting residential neighborhoods from industrial, commercial, and other developmental interferences that could impact negatively upon quality of life (see Part 1 of this article, December 7th, 2012). It seeks to accomplish this by permitting only certain types of land use activities to occur only in specifically designated areas. Other activities are prohibited in these same areas, yet may be allowed in other designated areas.
Your town uses a zoning map to show where these different land use activities are allowed or already located. Each zone (district) is colored for each type of use, such as yellow for residential. But having a goal and making a map only take you so far. You need zoning regulations to describe what can be and what cannot be done in each district. A Planning and Zoning Commission has a lot of authority and responsibility in that it legislates, administers and adjudicates the regulations.
If you want to keep factories out of residential neighborhoods, then you write regulations for residential zoning districts that specifically prohibit factories in these parts of your town. You then create a separate industrial zone. This is a straightforward use of zoning regulations regarding significantly different types of land uses.
If you want various types of the same land use, then you add more complexity to the regulations. For example, some residential zones may permit only one type of housing, such as single-family homes, so as not to mix in large apartment buildings. Other residential zones may allow for different types of housing in the same district, such as apartments, townhouse complexes and condominiums. Variations on a theme can be applied to different types of commercial (small country shops, larger retail stores, strip malls, and big shopping centers) and industrial (light, medium, and heavy) activities.
Having a variety of options may be important in that it provides necessary flexibility for how the zoning regulations deal with various types of land use activities. A caveat is to not let the regulations become unwieldy, unfriendly and unfair. If taken to an extreme, your town no longer is viewed as one community entity, but instead is seen as a collection of innumerable micro-sections that are compartmentalized by specific, possibly singular uses. This becomes a situation of not being able to see the forest for the trees. What prevents this from happening this is the application of practical common sense.
Some times, traditional zoning can too strictly keep apart and limit the appropriate combinations of different, yet desirable, mixed uses. People need access from their homes to places of work, shopping, public services, recreation, etc…. Some people believe that traditional zoning has caused various land uses to become segregated, not integrated. Neighborhoods too separated from other areas of town, and with more such neighborhoods built over time, cause people to frequently use their cars on increasingly busier streets to travel from their homes to where they want and need to go. The term urban sprawl was first used in the 1950’s to describe this phenomenon of what can happen as a municipality’s population grows, expanding out from its center, following traditional zoning methods.
Traditional zoning remains the predominant form of municipal planning used by our towns. When used wisely, understanding its strengths and weaknesses, and imbued with community involvement, it can achieve much that is good. For all of the many types of land use activities to coexist, both in their physical presence and in their impact upon you (and others), your town needs to have appropriate zoning regulations that follow the principles of its municipal master plan and that are flexible enough to deal with the many realities that change over time. Each town may approach this differently, but all towns continuously seek to find the balance between what you need (and want) and how to make such happen in a way that everyone in your town can live with (literally). It requires practical commonsense and an understanding of what can work, what may not work, and what pitfalls to avoid. In my opinion, it is a major part of what is exciting about government and public service.