I have written in a series of articles about land use zoning regulations. They may seem an abstract entity, but in fact, they are very much a real thing. Your town uses these hands-on tools every day to achieve the goals of your community’s master plan (usually a Plan of Conservation and Development) for guiding its future growth. It touches directly upon the private land that you own, the public spaces you use, and how you live your lives.
Everything in your town requires a space somewhere on the ground for it to exist and function. You need places to live. You need streets and public services infrastructure. You need industry, manufacturing, and commerce for products, services, jobs, and tax revenue. You need agriculture for food. You need open spaces and parks to enjoy. There is only so much physical room in your town to put all of these things, yet you want to benefit from them all. As a result, invariably, incongruous activities interact (or interfere) with each other.
Traditional zoning is based upon the laudable, primary goal of a community wanting to protect its residential neighborhoods from the growth of industrial, commercial, and other developments. It seeks to accomplish this by permitting only certain types of land use activities to take place in specific designated areas and by prohibiting other activities in those same areas. Think about you own home. How would you feel if something is proposed to be built near it or if the rules governing what can be done with the land next to yours change? This is a readily understandable, universal concern. It is with merit that people want to preserve the character of the neighborhoods where they live and raise their families as their communities undergo change over time. However, there are several possible disadvantages with traditional zoning.
First, there are a multitude of different types of land use developments and activities. A town can have a simple colored zoning map showing three zones: residential (yellow), commercial (red), and industrial (purple); the zoning regulations can be straightforward. But, what if you want single family homes, multi-family houses, groups of condominiums, more densely populated apartment buildings, and affordable housing in your town? One would then create variations of the original single residential zone to accommodate them. The number of residential zones multiplies and the zoning map now has various shades of yellow to reflect the different residential zones (designated, for example, as R-1, R-2, R-3, etc…). This same example applies to the different types of commerce (small country shops, larger retail stores, strip malls, and big shopping centers) and industry (light, medium, and heavy). Although having a variety of options is important, if taken too far, the town is no longer viewed as one regional entity, but instead is seen as a collection of different sections compartmentalized by specific, singular uses. There could be no limit to how many different zones a town could create, other than by the application of practical common sense (however, sometimes, even people with good intentions can not see the forest for the trees). The regulations could become unwieldy, unfriendly, and unfair.
This then could lead to the second disadvantage of traditional zoning: it can too strictly keep apart and limit the appropriate combinations of different, yet desirable, mixed uses. People want easy, quick access from their homes to places of work, shopping, public services, and recreation. 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 neighborhoods built over time) cause people to more 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 town’s or city’s population grows, expanding out from its center, following traditional zoning methods.
A third disadvantage may arise if zoning converts what was once a permissible activity into a prohibited one. Someone who cannot now use their land for a purpose which previously they were allowed to do may find themselves in a frustrating quandary. They could seek a variance from a zoning board of appeals, which can rule only upon a hardship caused by a unique set of non-conforming conditions existing on their land (and not having been created by their own actions). They can petition for a zoning change or apply for a special use permit. For all of these things, care must be taken not to create spot zoning, which is an illegal granting of a specific land use activity, incompatible with surrounding areas, on an individual parcel of land that is outside of the exceptions allowed in that zone by the regulations.
This is not to say that traditional zoning is all bad. It still remains the predominant form of zoning used successfully by towns. 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 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).