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Zoning Ordinances

The best-known form of land-use control is the zoning ordinance.8 This is generally prepared by the community's planners or planning consultant. The document acquires its legal force when the community's legislative body passes a measure adopting it. Generally speaking, there are two parts to the zoning ordinance. The first part is a map that divides the community into a number of zones. The map is sufficiently detailed so that it is possible to tell in which zone(s) any given parcel of land lies. Most commonly, all of the community is zoned. However, there are some cases, particularly nonurban counties, in which part of a community is zoned and part is not. The second part is the text, which specifies in considerable detail what may be constructed in each zone and to what uses structures may be put. The box on pages 142-144 shows some of the details for one zoning classification in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Among the items generally specified by the ordinance are the following.

  • 1. Site layout requirements. These may include, among other things, minimum lot area, frontage and depth, minimum setbacks (minimum distance from structure to front, side, or rear lot line), maximum percentage of site that may be covered by structure, placement of driveways or curb cuts, parking requirements, screening requirements, and limits on the size or placement of signs.
  • 2. Requirements for structure characteristics. These may include maximum height of structure, maximum number of stories, and maximum floor area of structure. The last is often cast in terms of floor area ratio (FAR), which indicates a maximum permissible ratio of floor area to site area.
  • 3. Uses to which structures may be put. In a residential zone the ordinance might specify that dwellings may be occupied only by single families and then proceed to define what constitutes a family. The ordinance might also enumerate certain nonresidential uses permitted in the zone such as churches, funeral homes, and professional offices. In commercial zones the ordinance will generally specify which uses are permitted and which are not. For example, in a manufacturing zone the ordinance might specify that sheet metal fabrication operations are permitted but that rendering operations are forbidden.

4. Procedural matters. The ordinance will specify how it is to be determined whether building plans are in conformity to the zoning ordinance. (A common arrangement is that the building inspector will make such determination and must deny a building permit application if the plans are not in conformity.) The ordinance will generally also specify an appeals procedure by which an applicant can apply for relief. In many communities the initial appeal authority is vested in a special body generally referred to as the Zoning Board of Appeals. If not, the review process is often assigned to the planning board or to the municipal legislative body.

The Popularity of Zoning. Zoning has been, since shortly after its inception, by far the most common means by which communities have sought to control land use. What accounts for its popularity? The answer is quite simple. Zoning has considerable power to achieve goals that the community favors, and it is almost free. Unless a "taking" has occurred (see Chapter 5), no compensation need be paid to property owners for reductions in property values caused by limitations imposed by the zoning ordinance upon the type or intensity of use permitted. In effect, the municipality gets one of the rights of ownership, namely the right to exercise some control over the use to which the property will be put, without having to purchase it.9 The only costs to the municipality are administrative and legal expenses.

In principle, the same effects could be achieved by exercise of the power of eminent domain or by contract between municipality and property owner. But either of those courses would necessitate major expenditures by the municipality.

In fact, contracts between governments and property owners have been used to affect land use. Generally, the contract is referred to as an easement. This is an agreement by the property owner to forgo some right(s) (for example, that of subdividing the property or developing it in some way) in return for a payment. For example, Suffolk County, New York has made widespread use of easement purchases to maintain land on eastern Long Island in agricultural use. Such a device can be highly effective, since the purchase of an easement provides an ironclad guarantee to the community in the form of an enforceable contract that property will not be used in a manner proscribed by the easement. In other places a similar effect has been obtained through special tax treatment. Where farmland preservation is a goal, land that is kept in agricultural use is taxed very lightly compared with the tax that must be paid on it when it is placed in some other use.

Easements and special tax treatment are used in most states, but, unlike zoning, their application is quite spotty. The explanation for this difference is cost.

The Effectiveness of Zoning. How effective is zoning in shaping land use? There is tremendous variation among communities, ranging from almost totally ineffective to highly effective. Zoning may be quite effective in a growing area where the land-use pattern is not yet fully determined. Here zoning can shape the urban pattern by blocking or limiting growth in some areas and thus, in effect, diverting it to other areas. Often in prosperous developed areas in which there is substantial pressure for change in land use, zoning may be effective in preventing or moderating that change. For example, a prosperous inner suburb might successfully resist the transformation of single-family neighborhoods to multi-family neighborhoods even though the economics of the local housing market favor such a change.

On the other hand, zoning may be relatively ineffective in older urban areas where the land-use pattern is essentially established and where growth forces are not very powerful. Zoning, by itself, cannot address the redevelopment problem, since controls cannot compel anyone to invest in an area. Zoning may also be relatively weak if the community is so eager for investment that it readily adjusts its zoning to suit developers' preferences. Zoning may also be weak or absent in semirural or rural areas where the residents do not see much need for it.

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