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Zoning Basics

The first part of the article looks at: the origins of zoning in America; zoning defined; linking zoning with planning; and the purposes of zoning. The next part of the article is excerpted below.

Read an excerpt from this article below. You can download the full article by using the link at the end of the excerpt.

How Zoning Works:

A zoning ordinance consists of two parts: a map (or series of maps) and text. The zoning map shows how the community is divided into different use districts or zones. Zoning districts common to most ordinances include residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural. The zoning map must show precise boundaries for each district. Consequently, most zoning maps rely on street or property lines as district boundaries.

The zoning text serves two important functions. First, it explains the zoning rules that apply in each zoning district. These rules typically establish a list of land uses permitted in each district plus a series of specific standards governing lot size, building height, and required yard and setback provisions. Second, the text sets forth a series of procedures for administering and applying the zoning ordinance. In most cases, the text is divided according to "sections" (or "articles") for ease of reference. Most zoning ordinances include the following:

1. Title, Authority and Purpose. This section identifies the specific state enabling provision which empowers the locality to adopt zoning. It also spells out, in a "statement of purposes," the community’s reasons for adopting the ordinance. The statement of purposes links the rules and regulations listed in the ordinance to the community’s values and goals.

2. General Provisions. Topics covered in this section usually include definitions of terms used in the ordinance, and a description of the geographic or jurisdictional reach of the zoning ordinance. Definitions are especially important because the general public, as well as the courts, must be able to attach specific meaning to the words and concepts appearing in the ordinance. With respect to jurisdictional reach, zoning ordinances will typically apply to the territory contained within the political subdivision; meaning the city, county, town, township, or village. In some cases, however, a zoning ordinance may reach beyond a locality's political boundaries. Such "extraterritorial" zoning is permissible if it is authorized by the enabling statute.

3. Zoning Districts and Regulations. This section of the ordinance is arguably the most important since it lists and defines each zoning district –- as we have noted, the concept of districts stands at the core of zoning. Most zoning ordinances will include -– at a minimum –- residential, commercial, and industrial districts.

Residential districts, in turn, are often broken down further into zones for single-family and multi-family dwellings of varying density. Similar distinctions, based on intensity of use, are also often found in business and industrial districts (e.g., light industry versus heavy industry).

Other common types of zoning districts are agricultural, conservation, and institutional. Many communities have also crafted a wide variety of "mixed use" districts, allowing blends of uses in some parts of the community. Many zoning ordinances include one or more special purpose zones addressing flood hazard areas, historic properties, and other specialized uses. These special zones are often applied as "overlays" -– that is, those geographic areas subject to overlay zones are also within an "underlying" zoning district. For example, a property within a residential zone might also be located within a flood hazard zone. This property would be subject to the regulations of both the underlying zone (in this case, residential) and the overlay zone (flood hazard). See also, Making Use of Overlay Zones, by Elizabeth Garvin.

In addition to listing and defining zoning districts, this section of the zoning ordinance sets out rules for the use of land in each district. Most basic is the list of permitted versus special or conditional uses. If a use is deemed permitted (commonly referred to as a "by-right" or "matter-of-right" use), it need only meet the ordinance's dimensional requirements (as described below) and any other "impact standards" (such as parking, landscaping, and signage standards; see point 5 below) to secure a zoning permit.

Other uses may be allowed within a district provided they are granted a special or conditional use permit. The terms special exception, special use, and conditional use permit generally have the same meaning; what term you're familiar with depends on the state you live in. The zoning ordinance will set out the standards which must be met for granting such a permit. Finally, this section of the zoning ordinance includes, for each zoning district, basic development requirements. These primarily involve dimensional standards for setbacks and side yards, minimum lot sizes, and building heights.

4. Nonconforming Uses, Structures, and Parcels. When a zoning ordinance is adopted some existing uses, structures, and parcels may not comply with the regulations of the zoning district in which they are located. These uses, structures, or parcels are then classified as "nonconforming." While they are typically permitted to continue, their future expansion, reconstruction, or conversion is regulated by provisions set out in this section of the zoning ordinance. See Sidebar, Zoning's "Achilles Heel," p. 16.

5. Impact Regulations. Many zoning ordinances include a separate section (or sections) setting out a variety of "impact" regulations or standards. These might include, for example, parking standards, sign regulations, landscape requirements, urban design criteria, historic preservation standards, and various environmental criteria (such as requirements for tree plantings in new developments).

6. Administration and Enforcement. This section of the zoning ordinance spells out the duties of those involved in administering the ordinance -– the zoning administrator, the governing body, the planning commission, and the board of zoning appeals or board of adjustment. Procedures to be followed when amending the zoning ordinance, as well as standards for assessing penalties and fines for zoning violators, are also included in this section. ...

End of excerpt

The second half of the article focuses on "Who's Who In Zoning." The article also includes extended sidebars on:

  • The Emergence of Zoning
  • Avoiding Spot Zoning
  • Nonconforming Uses & Structures
  • Special Permits
  • Legislative v. Quasi-Judicial Actions

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