When you drive in your car or walk around, what your town looks like is seen from a street level view. We are familiar with residential neighborhoods of houses, commercial areas of stores and offices, and industrial parks of manufacturing buildings. However, have you taken a good look at all that is actually around you? You would not be able to see your entire town at any given time because a ground level view is limited, but if you were to look down from a plane flying above, then the perspective would be much different. Laid out below you would be expanses of various types of land uses: residential neighborhoods, commercial stores, industrial buildings, public services, recreational facilities, farms, and undisturbed natural areas. If you were to take a photograph and highlight with different colored markers each type of land use, then you would have a basic zoning map showing where in your town the land use zoning districts are located. These individual land uses may be situated in separate parts of your town or these different types of activities may be mixed in with each other, some times in a sensible way and other times in a haphazard manner. There would be (hopefully) some type of municipal master plan to make orderly common sense of it all.
Zoning regulations arose from the desire and plans of communities to protect residential neighborhoods from the growth of industrial and commercial development. Since growth was inevitable, municipal planning and zoning was needed to guide it, otherwise once development occurred, it could not easily be relocated or removed if later, the end result was not appreciated.
The most prevalent type of zoning is called Euclidean, named for the town of Euclid, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. In 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a legal challenge to Euclid’s zoning ordinance and upheld for the first time as constitutional the government’s responsibility to regulate the use, development and preservation of land. The zoning ordinance of Euclid stated the need “to preserve the present character of said Village and the public improvement therein, to prevent congestion, and to promote and provide for the health, safety, convenience, comfort, prosperity, and general welfare of the citizens” and that the “various uses of property inconsistent with the proposed plan of Village of Euclid … would permanently injure or partially nullify such orderly plan of development”.
Does this sound familiar to you? We all share these same concerns today.
Euclid’s zoning map and regulations were straightforward. The entire town was divided into non-overlapping districts adjacent to each other showing where certain types of land uses were permitted and prohibited. Incompatible uses were kept apart from each other. A priority list was established such that “valuable” uses (residential) were the most protected and “less desirable” uses (industrial) were the least protected. In small, quiet neighborhoods, the only permitted uses were for single-family homes, agriculture, public parks, and electric railway stations (a transportation concept considered important in today’s “smart growth” urban planning). The converse of this was that many land use activities were prohibited in the “valuable” zoning districts. Lesser protected zoning districts were permitted to have more and more varied, as well as busier and larger, activities within them, so that in the least protected zoning district (industrial), all types of land uses were allowed (i.e.- little or no prohibitions).
Within each of Euclid’s zoning districts, dimensional standards were applied, serving as guides and limits to the scope of permitted land use activities. This served as another means of protecting the “valuable” zoning districts. Towns currently use dimensional standards to regulate the types of businesses permitted; the size, bulk, and height of buildings; the layout of neighborhoods; the design of streets and the setbacks of buildings from them; the preservation of land; the number of people living in a certain area (population density); the use of signs and lighting; the infrastructure for public safety and health; and the layout of parking. Some towns also use design guidelines to encourage a building’s street level visual appearance to be compatible with the type of neighborhood it is located in (for example, how a store will look if built near houses).
The benefits of Euclidean zoning are its simple ease of use. A town creates a zoning map and a set of regulations based upon the master plan of its desired future growth (a plan of conservation and development). You look on the map to see where a zoning district is located and then read the corresponding regulations to learn what you can and cannot do in that district. Your application for a particular land use is approved, modified or rejected by a planning and zoning commission based upon the regulations. Your Town Planner or Zoning Enforcement Officer helps you to follow the regulations, enforcing them when necessary. Euclidean zoning does have its limitations and drawbacks, even while remaining a dominant form of zoning that your town uses, so some municipalities have looked at other planning and zoning concepts (a topic for upcoming articles in this series).
As your town’s growth continues, it will use its zoning map and regulations to find the balance between what you want to preserve of your community and what new aspects of it you need and desire in the future. This is the foundation of the work being done by planning and zoning commissions. It has a literal direct impact upon what your town looks like now and in the future, be that what you see at ground level when you drive or walk around, or what you see from an aerial viewpoint looking down from a plane.