Zoning Codes: A Powerful Community Redevelopment Tool

Every town, city, or county in America has powerful tools that can help it decide what it should look like in the future, and what it considers important enough to be protected. These are land-use regulations, and more specifically, zoning codes.

Land-use regulation promulgated by the appropriate governmental authority provides the framework within which all citizens interested in the built and un-built environment of a community must work. Regulations dictate where development can take place, and whether it is residential, commercial, or industrial. Zoning codes regulating maximum building heights, parking requirements, and even architectural design standards greatly influence how this development will occur.

By examining your land-use regulations and zoning today, your community can avoid heated battles to protect your historic assets, landscapes, and natural areas tomorrow.

Outdated Zoning Codes 

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Zoning codes were originally designed to separate residential neighborhoods from potentially hazardous industrial areas. 

Zoning codes and land-use regulation began in the early 20th century as a means to protect the health of citizens by separating residential buildings from potentially hazardous industrial areas. This separation strategy continued into the automobile and post-World War II years of suburban development across the nation.

A look at most municipal maps shows that the common layout of the built environment consists of residential development on one side of town and commercial development on the other, with a series of roads connecting them. Short, squat buildings surrounded by parking occur partly due to height restrictions codified in local zoning ordinances. This “island” effect is further exacerbated by mandated commercial-use parking requirements. Ratios of up to five parking spaces per 1,000 square feet have created the massive asphalt fields we all know and hate.

In most cases, the land-use and zoning rules that govern a municipality date back several decades. Regulations of this vintage governed a time that included more industrial-based local economies, as well as the then-current interests of a community in protecting its natural environment and heritage. Now, long-closed factories located near dense residential neighborhoods remain shuttered and waterfronts have been abandoned, due in part to a zoning classification that restricts properties to manufacturing uses that will most likely never return.

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Mandated commercial parking requirements in many zoning ordinances create massive fields of asphalt around short, squat buildings.

Multi-story buildings in downtowns with outdated zoning ordinances are regulated as either residential or retail properties, not both. New construction is approved on a singular basis, with ample parking as the most important criteria, even though it provides room for more cars than even the biggest after-Christmas sale could attract. The context of the development and whether or not it should be built in a particular area are not important factors, either from the government’s viewpoint, or for the developers who are simply following the regulations of that community.

Modernizing Regulations

Communities today have the opportunity to revisit the rules that govern their design and development. In fact, every building design, community planning, and land-use strategy currently being discussed in the United States requires re-thinking and updating of local zoning regulations.  

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Dense, compact development inherent in Main Street and Smart Growth strategies can protect greenfield areas from being enveloped by sprawl.

Leadership in Energy and Energy Design (LEED) standards encourage tall, thin buildings to maximize density and minimize energy use. Current height limits and building setbacks need to be re-written for this to take place. The redevelopment of former industrial sites, called brownfields, requires the adjustment of zoning classifications to permit new uses, such as residential space. Greyfield development, the reuse of previously developed land, also necessitates a zoning use change so that a single-story shopping center can be converted to a mixed-use town center. The strategies for community development inherent in the New Urbanism, Main Street, and Smart Growth schools of thought call for dense, mixed-use development in some areas while also protecting greenfield areas from future development. Most regulations today are not dynamic enough to implement this.

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New zoning regulations can permit mixed uses in historic downtown buildings, such as this former hotel in Natchitoches, La. Located on a key corner of the downtown it now houses retail shops on the first floor and apartments upstairs.

The preservation of historic buildings and places can also benefit from this powerful tool. Buildings that have become obsolete can be given new life with new designations for potential use. Properties that lend themselves to the mixed-use possibilities of both residential and commercial can be approved for just such purposes. The channeling of development into specific locations to create a dense, built environment can be used to protect landscapes and view sheds.

A systematic review and updating of land-use regulations and zoning classifications will help a community determine what its future environment will look like. They also provide exact specifications and rules for potential developers and builders to use when planning and designing a site. A community can greatly facilitate future development by creating a clear, dynamic regulatory framework that shows how it would like to manage its growth and what it would like to preserve. Thus, projects will not commence that threaten historic and cultural assets.  Revised zoning codes and updated land use plans give communities the ability to shape their future, while protecting their past.