Planning And Zoning Laws In The U.S. - Recent Trends

Zoning laws are intended to control development and place compatible land uses in proximity and avoid land use conflicts.  However, for a variety of reasons, our society is experiencing many problems partially arising from our zoning models.

Our North American automobile culture has promoted rapid expansion of urban areas into suburban and rule areas.  Suburbia or urban sprawl are terms that describe our endless miles of roads throughout North America.

Our political climate remains ambivalent to this problem.  People talk of the problems with suburbanization of our society and our worsening oil and gas crisis.  However, many of our policies do not reflect any fundamental change in our way of developing and living.

When you travel highways in the suburban and rural hinterland, you will see substantial evidence of the insidious urbanization crawling into farmland and rural areas everywhere.  You will note new highway interchanges in remote areas which create pressures for continuous development.  You will observe various other projects extending our urban reach into these areas such as water and sewer lines extending into rural areas.  And endless rows of subdivisions and tract housing.  All of these incursions have negative impact upon the natural environment, including wildlife.

Our planning, zoning and development philosophy has generated 2 hour plus commuting times for many people living in bedroom communities.  Many communities even prohibit cluster housing, multi-family housing, townhouse housing and require minimum lot sizes.  Infill housing is not promoted.

At the same time, there are certain efforts to preserve open space and rural areas.  Studies have shown that minimum residential lot sizes in rural areas do not preserve rural environments.  Large lot sizes exacerbate the problem of urban sprawl.  In the planning community, this has been a traditional controversy over many decades.

Many analyses have showed the efficiency benefits of in-fill development in which underutilized land within urban centers can be developed for a variety of uses, including mixed use projects and higher density residential uses.  Often, these underdeveloped areas may require more creativity and flexibility because of their location, size, shape and surrounding uses.  For instance, pre-existing local zoning controls regarding height, setback requirements (front, side and back yard setback), parking requirements often need adjustment to accommodate development.<

Moreover, many planners have discussed the opportunity to develop low and moderate income housing in urban centers.  Zoning controls in these areas may permit higher density housing and multi-family units.  This type of housing can readily take advantage of pre-existing public facilities, schools, commercial areas, churches and infrastructure facilities and thereby can reduce the dependence upon automobiles and costly extension of these public services.

Existing Urban Areas
Redevelopment of old industrial sites, waterfront areas and railway areas offers major opportunities to concentrate development in existing urban areas.  Many cities have adopted policies and programs to restore these areas for productive mixed use.  In many cases, up-scale development has occurred in these areas.  Typically, sensitive environmental corrective work must be taken in formerly industrial or railway areas.  But the rewards are high.

Cities and developers working on city redevelopment projects must arrange difficult financial solutions to undertake their projects in urban settings.  There are different financial alternatives available.  Private-public cost sharing, state level assistance and a variety of other financial mechanisms are available.  The public-private ventures may be directed to uplifting the central business district.

The government sometimes needs to employ the powers of expropriation or eminent domain to purchase land needed to complete redevelopment projects.  There are many examples of revitalizing downtown areas, public transit systems, open space requirements,

In many jurisdictions, land use regulations prohibit single family houses on lots with less than ½ acre.  Many jurisdictions prohibit mixed use developments, cluster and planned unit developments.  Many do not permit in-fill development on small lots, housing on irregularly shaped parcels, parcels that do not meet setback, side yard, parking, and other requirements.  Many promote sprawl by imposing annual building permit limitations.

Zoning Ordinances in California
The distribution of residential, commercial, industrial, and other zones is based on the land use patterns described in the city or town’s general plan.  Zoning is adopted by local ordinance.  Land may be put only to those uses allowed by its zoning designation.  Some communities are adopting creative solutions to solve some of the problems described above.

The zoning ordinance controls land uses and assigns each parcel of property to a specific zone which sets forth the dulrs under which that land may be developed.  For instance, the R-1 category permits single family residences and the C-1 category permits neighborhood commercial uses.

A typical zoning ordinance provides for several zoning categories and development requirements.  Each zone specifies allowable densities and sets standards for minimum lots size, maximum height and minimum front yard depth.

If a use fits within the allowable uses permitted, typically no public hearing is required.  However, several communities are requiring public review of the design of a project before a building permit may be permitted.
         Zoning decisions are made by the planning commission typically.  However, a zoning administrator may be appointed to review use permit and variance requests.

The design of buildings may be subject to approval by a design review board.

Public notice of zoning hearings must be given at least 10 days prior to a hearing and must be published in a newspaper of general circulation and by direct mailing to all property owners with 300 feet of the property boundaries.


If a landowner proposes to construct a use that is not allowed within the zone, then a rezoing will be required.  The planning commission ahnd the city council or board of supervisors must hold a public hearing to review the proposed rezoning request.

The board has no obligation to approved rezoning requests.  When the proposed use in in conflict with the general plan, the use must be denied.


A variance is a limited waiver of development standards stated in the zoning ordinance.   After a public hearing, the variance may be granted provided
strict application of the zoning requirement would deprive the property of uses allowed by nearby properties within the same zone;  and restrictions are imposed wto ensure that the variance will not grant a special privilege to that landowner.

A variance does not permit uses otherwise not allowed within the zone.  Financial hardship is not a reason for permitting a variance. Variances may be considered when the physical attributes of the property make it difficult to utilize productively.  For instance if the topography of the lot makes it difficult to develop in parts due to severe slope, a variance from a setback requirement may be considered.

Conditional Use Permits
A land use may be permitted after issuance of a conditional use permit after a public hearing.  Uses include community facilities such as schools and hospitals, public buildings, unusual uses or uses which may have environmental impacts such as hazardous chemical storage.  The zoning ordinance typically specifies uses for which a conditional use permit is required and the procedures regarding conditional use public hearings.

Typically, conditional use permit require that the use will not cause harm to the neighborhood.  Mitigation elements are often required such as limitation on the hours of operation, extra landscaping, soundproofing, extra parking or other public improvements such as roads.

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