Understanding Zoning

zoningMany people have heard of zoning, but knowing exactly what it is and how it works is a different matter. Simply put, zoning is a code of ordinances that stipulate how land within a town or city can be used and what can be built. If you’re wondering if your town has a zoning code, the answer is almost definitely yes; every major city in the US other than Houston has a zoning code. So, just how specific is a zoning code in dictating what can be built? Generally they are very specific. Every parcel within a town’s boundaries will fall within a zone, which dictates what can be done with the land. If a use is not specifically allowed by the zoning code, it is most likely prohibited, though this might depend on what city or town you live in.

Why Zoning is Necessary

At this point, it might seem like zoning is an unnecessary limitation of what you can do with land that you own, but this is certainly not the case. Zoning as a land use control was developed as a response to the public health issues of the industrial revolution, and has since evolved into the way that urban planners shape cities. As living conditions were improved after the advent of zoning, its purpose has evolved. When it was developed, zoning was meant to address public health issues, as those were the most critical issues of the day. As our values and concerns have changed, zoning laws have changed with them. Instead of being concerned with overcrowded tenements, the planning community is now more focused on transit oriented development, livable cities, and sustainable development, among other things.

Zoning probably will not interfere with your sustainable land use project, but, depending upon how out-of-the-ordinary it is, you might want to check to be sure. For example, if you don’t use a car and want to get rid of that ugly concrete slab next to your home and replace it with a rain garden, you might have to check with your city government first. This is because most cities stipulate a minimum parking requirement for every lot, with the specific number of spaces required depending on the specific use. Each zoning code is different, so it’s important to check with your city before you start digging or building. If you do plan on digging for any reason, it is absolutely necessary to check with your city’s government to make sure you will not hit any buried wires.

Big Changes are Coming

It’s very possible that in learning more about the zoning code for where you live you will find some portions of it that seem senseless or dated. As was mentioned above, zoning codes are representative of the values and concerns of those who wrote them, and they have not all been updated very recently. However, many cities are in the process of updating their zoning codes to reflect current values, and these changes will likely be very significant in some places. Some examples of the changes that are talked about are things like the allowance of urban agriculture (including raising small animals like chickens) and elimination of parking requirements altogether to promote sustainable transportation.

There are also some completely new types of zoning being developed, like cluster zoning and form-based code. Cluster zoning is a type of zoning where, instead of setting specific requirements for each parcel, a government sets a density requirement for a specific area, within which it’s unimportant how the population is distributed. This translates into denser, clustered development patterns that preserve open space. This type of development can be more sustainable because it allows more land to be left undeveloped. Form-based code is a type of zoning that specifies dimensional requirements for buildings like conventional codes, but does not restrict the uses in the same way conventional zoning does. The purpose of this is to encourage vibrant mixed-use communities that are more livable.

While the zoning code in your town may or may not have an effect on your sustainable land use project, it’s still important to know what’s in it and how it might affect you. If the code in your town doesn’t allow for the project you would like to do at your home, you might be able to get a special permit for it through your town’s planning department. You likely won’t have a problem with zoning for your project, but if you do it’s better to know sooner rather than later.

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