In most US communities, land and uses on it are regulated through a zoning ordinance. It is a tool to implement a comprehensive plan, a vision and set of policies of how the community wants to grow over a period of 10 to 20 year period. A notable exception is Houston, Texas., even though they have land use regulations.
How it Started
Initially, zoning’s intent was to separate uses into districts – residential ,commercial and industrial, to protect residential communities for the obnoxious impacts from these non-residential uses. New York City adopted the first comprehensive zoning code in 1916, specifically to prevent tall buildings from blocking light and air to the streets. Setbacks from the street were then increased with building height. See CityLab University: Zoning Codes, a good primer about zoning and its affect on our communities.
The legal basis for zoning was established by the famous 1926 US Supreme Court case – Village of Euclid v. Amber Realty Co. . This confirmed that cities had the constitutional authority to regulate uses that could be allowed on private properties,. This is now known as “Euclidian”zoning – separate, individual uses on land.
The zoning ordinance then provides the specific requirements regulating that use on the land. For residential uses, typical regulations include what type of house (more about this later), how large, how far back from the street, how tall.
While the original of zoning intent may have been good, economics, our car dominant transportation and other events and trends, have changed,resulting that zoning was used for economic and racial separation, discrimination and inequality. Much has been written and researched, documented about this .
This is known as exclusionary zoning, – its use and its requirements (large lots, parking minimums) to prevent other than single family housing in communities. This still happens, even after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
The finance industry practiced “redlining” – “unethical practice that puts services (financial and otherwise) out of reach for residents of certain areas based on race or ethnicity. It can be seen in the systematic denial of mortgages, insurance, loans, and other financial services based on location (and that area’s default history) rather than an individual’s qualifications and creditworthiness. Notably, the policy of redlining is felt the most by residents of minority neighborhoods. a spatially discriminatory practice among credit card issuers, of providing different amounts of credit to different areas, based on their ethnic-minority composition, rather than on economic criteria, such as the potential profitability of operating in those areas.” This too was banned by the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA).
Reform is on the Way!
But now, the pandemic has again exposed the inequality of zoning while worsening a housing affordability crisis we continue to ignore. Many places are now re-thinking how they want to grow and re-invest in their communities, including eliminating single-family only zoning altogether. A number of states attempted this (Washington, Maryland, Virginia), with Oregon succeeding in earlier this year. Minneapolis was the first city to do this, passing a new ordinance in 2019.
But for many communities, changing their zoning is a significant undertaking – financially and politically. A recent post New Guide Offers Communities a path to zoning reform by Public Square, provides a practicable process for this needed change.
“In most communities, obsolete land use regulations impede the development of vibrant, walkable neighborhoods that combine housing and compatible commercial uses in neighborhoods that offer a variety of homes for every stage of life. Unfortunately, the difficult and costly process of updating municipal regulations is too often out of reach for many communities. The result is zoning that perpetuates the status quo and limits housing access, convenience, and affordability.“Enabling Better Places: A Zoning Guide for Vermont Neighborhoods
While the guide (Enabling Better Places: A Zoning Guide for Vermont Neighborhoods) was developed for Vermont communities, there are takeaways applicable for other places:
- The process can be scaled to cities, towns of all sizes and to specific neighborhoods.
- The importance of collaboration, having the right players in the mix is needed. The guide was a partnership of the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, AARP – Vermont, the Vermont Association of REALTORS and Public Square, Congress for the New Urbanism.
- Changing codes should be an incremental process – small, doable steps, leading to next steps, success, building momentum and community acceptance.
- The focus is on engaging local stakeholders and leaders for buy in and sustaining the process.
- This develops civic leadership needed to sustain needed changes.
My hope is that communities will take the time, effort and money to start zoning reform, using the best practices identified here and in other places.
This will be tested in my community, as the Town Council reviews and adopts a new comprehensive plan and hopefully make the needed changes to the zoning ordinance to implement new plans’ policies. At the same time, two large projects are moving forward, with huge impacts on the town. One is a 800 acre annexation request, proposing mixed use (residential, commercial) community with a 20-30 year build-out. The other is re-start of a primarily residential community (3,000 residential units) ,annexed over thirty years ago., but never started because of lack of funds by the owner. There is now a potential new owner and committed to starting construction.
My hope, as well as, concern is that the town will not fall back on the status-quo zoning, but using this guide and other practices to develop real mixed-use, walkable communities, with a variety of housing types, appropriate for our town, not the cookie-cutter mass we see so often across our landscapes.