Zoning in the United States
- 1 Origins and history
- 2 Scope
- 3 Constitutional challenges
- 4 Types
- 5 Amendments to zoning regulations
- 6 Limitations and criticisms
- 7 References
Origins and history
During the 1860s, a specific state statute prohibited all commercial activities along Eastern Parkway (Brooklyn), setting a trend for future decades. In 1916, New York City adopted the first zoning regulations to apply city-wide as a reaction to construction of The Equitable Building (which still stands at 120 Broadway). The building towered over the neighboring residences, completely covering all available land area within the property boundary, blocking windows of neighboring buildings and diminishing the availability of sunshine for the people in the affected area. These laws, written by a commission headed by Edward Bassett and signed by Mayor John Purroy Mitchel, became the blueprint for zoning in the rest of the country, partly because Bassett headed the group of planning lawyers which wrote The Standard State Zoning Enabling Act that was issued by the US Department of Commerce in 1924 and accepted almost without change by most states. The effect of these zoning regulations on the shape of skyscrapers was famously illustrated by architect and illustrator Hugh Ferriss.
There was a different origin of zoning regulations in the West. Land use zoning laws in Colorado have their roots in Denver’s Capitol Hill Improvement Association and Robert Speer League, both of which were KKK organizations supported by KKK member Mayor Stapleton. Their goals, of regulating what kinds of businesses could be in a neighborhood and who ran them, as well as what kinds of housing and who could live in them, translated into the modern zoning regulations, adopted in 1925. 
The constitutionality of zoning ordinances was upheld in 1926. The zoning ordinance of Euclid, Ohio was challenged in court by a local land owner on the basis that restricting use of property violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Though initially ruled unconstitutional by lower courts, the zoning ordinance was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co..
By the late 1920s most of the nation had developed a set of zoning regulations.
Among large populated cities in the United States, Houston is unique as the largest city in the country with no zoning ordinances. Houston voters have rejected efforts to implement zoning in 1948, 1962 and 1993. It is commonly believed that "Houston is Houston" because of the lack of zoning laws. However, Houston is similar to other large cities throughout the Sun Belt who all experienced the bulk of their population growth during the Age of the Automobile. These largest of these cities, such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Tampa, Dallas, Phoenix, and Kansas City, have all experienced urban sprawl such as experienced by Houston despite having zoning systems.
While Houston has no official zoning ordinances, many private properties have legal covenants or "deed restrictions" that limit the future uses of land that have effects similar to those of zoning systems. The city has also enacted development regulations that specify how lots are subdivided, standard setbacks, and parking requirements.  These regulations have contributed to the city's automobile-dependent urban sprawl by requiring the existence of large minimum residential lot sizes and large commercial parking lots.
Without land use-based zoning, many inner-ring suburbs, such as Montrose feature small businesses such as bars, restaurants, mechanics and hardware stores mixed in among residential streets.
Theoretically, the primary purpose of zoning is to segregate uses that are thought to be incompatible. However, in practice zoning is used as a permitting system to prevent new development from harming existing residents or businesses. Zoning is commonly exercised by local governments such as counties or municipalities, though the state determines the nature of the zoning scheme with a zoning enabling law. Federal lands are not subject to state planning controls.
Zoning may include regulation of the kinds of activities which will be acceptable on particular lots (such as open space, residential, agricultural, commercial or industrial), the densities at which those activities can be performed (from low-density housing such as single family homes to high-density such as high-rise apartment buildings), the height of buildings, the amount of space structures may occupy, the location of a building on the lot (setbacks), the proportions of the types of space on a lot (for example, how much landscaped space and how much paved space), and how much parking must be provided. Some commercial zones specify what types of products may be sold by particular stores. The details of how individual planning systems incorporate zoning into their regulatory regimes varies though the intention is always similar.
Most zoning systems have a procedure for granting variances (exceptions to the zoning rules), usually because of some perceived hardship due to the particular nature of the property in question. If the variance is not warranted, then it may cause an allegation of spot zoning to arise. Most state's zoning enabling laws prohibit local zoning authorities from engaging in any spot zoning because it would undermine the purpose of a zoning scheme.
Zoning codes vary by jurisdiction. As one example, residential zones might be coded as R1 for single-family homes, R2 for two-family homes, and R3 for multiple-family homes. As another example, R60 might represent a minimum lot of 60,000 sq ft (1.4 acre or about 0.5 hectares) per single family home, while R30 would require lots of only half that size.
There have been notable legal challenges to zoning regulations. In 1926 the United States Supreme Court upheld zoning as a right of U.S. states (typically via their cities and counties) to impose on landowners. The case was Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co. (often shortened to Euclid v. Ambler), 272 U.S. 365 (1926). The village had zoned an area of land held by Ambler Realty as a residential neighborhood. Ambler argued that it would lose money because if the land could be leased to industrial users it would have netted a great deal more money than as a residential area. Euclid won, and a precedent was set favorable to local enforcement of zoning laws.
In doing so, the Court accepted the arguments of zoning defenders that it met two essential needs. First, zoning extended and improved on nuisance law in that it provided advance notice that certain types of uses were incompatible with other uses in a particular district. The second argument was that zoning was a necessary municipal-planning instrument.
The Euclid case was a facial challenge, meaning that the entire scheme of regulation was argued to be unconstitutional under any set of circumstances. The United States Supreme Court justified the ordinance saying that a community may enact reasonable laws to keep the pig out of the parlor, even if pigs may not be prohibited from the entire community.
Since the Euclid case, there have been no more facial challenges to the general scheme. By the late 1920s most of the nation had developed a set of zoning regulations.
Beginning in 1987, several United States Supreme Court cases ruled against land use regulations as being a taking requiring just compensation pursuant to the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. First English Evangelical Lutheran Church v. Los Angeles County ruled that even a temporary taking may require compensation. Nollan v. California Coastal Commission ruled that construction permit (short: permit) conditions that fail to substantially advance the agency's authorized purposes require compensation. Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council ruled that numerous environmental concerns were not sufficient to deny all development without compensation. Dolan v. City of Tigard ruled that conditions of a permit must be roughly proportional to the impacts of the proposed new development. Palazzolo v. Rhode Island ruled property rights are not diminished by unconstitutional laws that exist without challenge at the time the complaining property owner acquired title.
However, the landowner victories have been mostly limited to the U.S. Supreme Court despite that Court's purported overriding authority. Each decision in favor of the landowner is based on the facts of the particular case, so that regulatory takings rulings in favor of landowners are little more than a landowners' mirage. Even the trend of the U.S. Supreme Court may now have reversed with the 2002 ruling in Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who had previously ruled with a 5-4 majority in favor of the landowner, switched sides to favor the government that had delayed development for more than 20 years because of the government's own indecision about alleged concerns to the water quality of Lake Tahoe.
Specific zoning laws have been overturned in some other U.S. cases where the laws were not applied evenly (violating equal protection) or were considered to violate free speech. In the Atlanta suburb of Roswell, Georgia, an ordinance banning billboards was overturned in court on such grounds. It has been deemed that a municipality's sign ordinance must be content neutral with regard to the regulation of signage. The City of Roswell, Georgia has now instituted a sign ordinance that regulates signage based strictly on dimensional and aesthetic codes, rather than an interpretation of a sign's content (i.e. use of colors, lettering, etc.).
On other occasions, religious institutions sought to circumvent zoning laws, citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). The Supreme Court eventually overturned RFRA in just such a case, City of Boerne v. Flores 521 U.S. 507 (1997). However, Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 2000 in an effort to correct the constitutionally objectionable problems of the RFRA. In the 2005 case of Cutter v. Wilkinson, the United States Supreme Court held RLUIPA to be constitutional as applied to institutionalized persons, but has not yet decided RLUIPA's constitutionality as it relates to religious land uses.
Zoning codes have evolved over the years as urban planning theory has changed, legal constraints have fluctuated, and political priorities have shifted. The various approaches to zoning can be divided into four broad categories: Euclidean, Performance, Incentive, and Design-based.
Named for the type of zoning code adopted in the town of Euclid, Ohio, Euclidean zoning codes are by far the most prevalent in the United States, used extensively in small towns and large cities alike.
Also known as "Building Block" zoning, Euclidean zoning is characterized by the segregation of land uses into specified geographic districts and dimensional standards stipulating limitations on the magnitude of development activity that is allowed to take place on lots within each type of district. Typical types of land-use districts in Euclidean zoning are: residential (single-family), residential (multi-family), commercial, and industrial. Uses within each district are usually heavily prescribed to exclude other types of uses (residential districts typically disallow commercial or industrial uses). Some "accessory" or "conditional" uses may be allowed in order to accommodate the needs of the primary uses. Dimensional standards apply to any structures built on lots within each zoning district, and typically take the form of setbacks, height limits, minimum lot sizes, lot coverage limits, and other limitations on the building envelope.
The zoning ordinance of Euclid, Ohio was challenged in court by a local land owner on the basis that restricting use of property violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Though initially ruled unconstitutional by lower courts, the zoning ordinance was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co. (1926).
Euclidean zoning is preferred by many municipalities due to its relative effectiveness, ease of implementation (one set of explicit, prescriptive rules), long-established legal precedent, and familiarity to planners and design professionals. Euclidean zoning has received heavy criticism, however, for its lack of flexibility and institutionalization of now-outdated planning theory. Separation of uses contributes to wasteful sprawl development, loss of open space, heavy infrastructure costs, and reliance on the automobile.
Euclidean II Zoning uses traditional Euclidean zoning classifications (industrial, commercial, multi-family, residential, etc.) but places them in a hierarchical order "nesting" one zoning class within another similar to the concept of Planned Unit Developments (PUD) mixed uses, but now for all zoning districts.
For example, multi-family is not only permitted in "higher order" multi-family zoning districts, but also permitted in high order commercial and industrial zoning districts as well. Protection of land values is maintained by stratifying the zoning districts into levels according to their location in the urban society (neighborhood, community, municipality, and region). Euclidean II zoning also incorporates transportation and utilities as new zoning districts in its matrix dividing zoning into three categories: Public, Semi-Public and Private. In addition, all Euclidean II Zoning permitted activities and definitions are tied directly to the state's building code, Municode and the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) assuring statewide uniformity. Euclidean II zoning fosters the concepts of mixed use, new urbanism and "highest and best use"; and, simplifies all zoning classifications into a single and uniform set of activities. It is relatively easy to transition from most existing zoning classification systems to the Euclidean II Zoning system.
Smart zoning (or smart coding) is an alternative to Euclidian zoning. There are a number of different techniques to accomplish smart zoning. Floating zones, cluster zoning, and planned unit development (PUDs) are possible even as the conventional Euclidean code exists, or the conventional code may be completely replaced by a smart code, as the City of Miami is proposing. The following three techniques may be used to accomplish either conventional separation of uses or more environmentally responsible Traditional Neighborhood Development, depending on how the codes are written. For serious reform of Euclidean zoning, TND ordinances such as form-based codes or the SmartCode are usually necessary.
Floating zones involve an ordinance that describes a zone's characteristics and requirements for its establishment, but its location remains undesignated until the board finds that a situation exists which allows the implementation of that type of zone in a particular area. When the criteria of a floating zone is met the floating zone ceases "to float" and is adopted by a zoning amendment. Some states allow this type of zoning like New York and Maryland while states such as Pennsylvania do not as an instance of spot zoning. To be upheld the floating zone the master plan must permit floating zones or at least they should not conflict with the master plan. Further, the criteria and standards provided for them should be adequate and the action taken is not arbitrary or unreasonable. Generally, the floating zone is more easily adoptable and immune from legal challenges if it does not differ substantially from zoned area in which it is implemented.
Cluster zoning permits residential uses to be clustered more closely together than normally allowed thereby leaving substantial land area to be devoted to open space.
Planned unit development is cluster zoning but allows for mixed uses including some commercial and light industrial uses in order to blend together a traditional downtown environment but with at a suburban scale. However, some have argued that such a planned unit development may be a sham for the purpose of bringing in commercial and industrial uses forbidden by the state's zoning law; some courts have held such a "sham" to be an "arbitrary and capricious abuse" of the police power.
Also known as "Effects-based planning", Performance Zoning uses performance-based or goal-oriented criteria to establish review parameters for proposed development projects in any area of a municipality. Performance zoning often utilizes a "points-based" system whereby a property developer can apply credits toward meeting established zoning goals through selecting from a 'menu' of compliance options (some examples include: mitigation of environmental impacts, providing public amenities, building affordable housing units, etc.). Additional discretionary criteria may also be established as part of the review process.
The appeal of Performance Zoning lies in its high level of flexibility, rationality, transparency and accountability. Performance Zoning avoids the arbitrary nature of the Euclidian approach, and better accommodates market principles and private property rights with environmental protection. However, performance zoning can be extremely difficult to implement and can require a high level of discretionary activity on the part of the supervising authority. For this reason performance zoning has not been widely adopted in the USA, and is usually limited to specific categories within a broader prescriptive code when found. New Zealand's planning system, however, is grounded in effects-based Performance Zoning under the Resource Management Act 1991.
First implemented in Chicago and New York City, incentive zoning is intended to provide a reward-based system to encourage development that meets established urban development goals. Typically, a base level of prescriptive limitations on development will be established and an extensive list of incentive criteria will be established for developers to adopt or not at their discretion. A reward scale connected to the incentive criteria provides an enticement for developers to incorporate the desired development criteria into their projects. Common examples include (floor-area-ratio) bonuses for affordable housing provided on-site and height limit bonuses for the inclusion of public amenities on-site. Incentive zoning has become more common throughout the United States during the last 20 years.
Incentive zoning allows for a high degree of flexibility, but can be complex to administer. The more a proposed development takes advantage of incentive criteria, the more closely it has to be reviewed on a discretionary basis. The initial creation of the incentive structure in order to best serve planning priorities can also be challenging and often requires extensive ongoing revision to maintain balance between incentive magnitude and value given to developers.
Form-based zoning relies on rules applied to development sites according to both prescriptive and potentially discretionary criteria. These criteria are typically dependent on lot size, location, proximity, and other various site- and use-specific characteristics. For example, in a largely suburban single family residential area, uses such as offices, retail, or even light industrial could be permitted so long as they conformed(setback, building size, lot coverage, height, and other factors) with other existing development in the area.
Design-based codes offer considerably more flexibility in building uses than do Euclidean codes, but, as they are comparatively new, may be more challenging to create. Design-based codes have not yet been widely adopted in the United States. When form-based codes do not contain appropriate illustrations and diagrams, they have been criticized as being difficult to interpret.
One example of a recently adopted code with design-based features is the Land Development Code adopted by Louisville, Kentucky in 2003. This zoning code creates "form districts" for Louisville Metro. Each form district intends to recognize that some areas of the city are more suburban in nature, while others are more urban. Building setbacks, heights, and design features vary according to the form district. As an example, in a "traditional neighborhood" form district, a maximum setback might be 15 feet (4.6 m) from the property line, while in a suburban "neighborhood" there may be no maximum setback.
Dallas, Texas, is currently developing an optional form-based zoning ordinance. Since the concept of form based codes is relatively new, this type of zoning may be more challenging to enact.
One version of form-based or "form integrated" zoning utilizes a base district overlay method or "composite" zoning. This method is based on a euclidian framework and includes three district components - a use component, a site component and an architectural component. The use component is similar in nature to the use districts of euclidian zoning. However, with an emphasis on form standards, use components are typically more inclusive and broader in scope. The site components define a variety of site conditions from low intensity to high intensity such as size and scale of buildings and parking, accessory structures, drive-through commercial lanes, landscaping, outdoor storage and display, vehicle fueling and washing, overhead commercial service doors, etc. The architectural components address architectural elements and materials. This zoning method is more flexible and contextually adaptable than standard euclidian zoning while being easier to interpret than other form based codes. It has been utilized primarily for contemporary "conventional" standards and has not yet been fully developed for traditional standards.
Amendments to zoning regulations
Amendments to zoning regulations may be subject to judicial review should such amendments be challenged as ultra vires or unconstitutional.
The standard applied to the amendment to determine whether it may survive judicial scrutiny is the same as the review of a zoning ordinance: whether the restriction is arbitrary or whether it bears a reasonable relationship to the exercise of the state's police power.
If the residents in the targeted neighborhood complain about the amendment, their argument in court does not allow them any vested right to keep the zoned district the same. However, they do not have to prove the difficult standard that the amendment amounts to a taking. If the gain to the public for the rezoning is small compared to the hardships that would affect the residents, then the amendment may be granted if it provides relief to the residents.
If the local zoning authority passes the zoning amendment, then spot zoning allegations may arise should the rezoning be preferential in nature and cannot be reasonably justified.
Limitations and criticisms
Land-use zoning is a tool in the treatment of certain social ills, and part of the larger concept of social engineering. Criticism of zoning is widespread, however, and its effectiveness as a tool for promoting or discouraging social change is debatable. The voters of Houston have rejected implementation of zoning districts through referendums held in 1948, 1962 and 1993.
Existing development in a community is generally not affected by the new zoning laws because it is "grandfathered" or legally non-conforming as a nonconforming use, meaning the prior development is exempt from compliance. Consequently, zoning can only affect new development in a growing community. In addition, if undeveloped land is zoned to allow development, that land becomes relatively expensive, causing developers to seek land that is not zoned for development, and then seek rezoning of that land themselves. Communities generally react by not zoning undeveloped land to allow development until a developer requests rezoning and presents a suitable plan. Development under this practice appears to be piecemeal and uncoordinated. Communities try to influence the timing of development by government expenditures for new streets, sewers and utilities usually desired for modern developments. However, the development of interstate freeways for purposes unrelated to planned community growth, creates an inexorable rush to develop the relatively cheap land near interchanges. Property tax suppression measures such as California Proposition 13 have led many communities to disregard their comprehensive plans and rezone undeveloped land for retail establishments, desperate to capture sales tax revenue.
In Colorado, local governments are free to not enforce their own zoning and other land regulation laws. This is called selective enforcement. Steamboat Springs CO is an example of a location with illegal buildings and lax enforcement.
In more recent times, zoning has been criticized by urban planners and scholars (most notably Jane Jacobs) as a source of new social ills, including urban sprawl, the separation of homes from employment, and the rise of "car culture." Some communities have begun to encourage development of denser, homogenized, mixed-use neighborhoods that promote walking and cycling to jobs and shopping. However, a single-family home and car are major parts of the "American Dream" for nuclear families, and zoning laws often reflect this: in some cities, houses that do not have an attached garage are deemed "blighted" and are subject to redevelopment. Movements that disapprove of zoning, such as New Urbanism and Smart Growth, generally try to reconcile these competing demands. New Urbanists in particular try through creative urban design solutions that hark back to 1920s and 1930s practices. Late in the 20th century, New Urbanists have also come under attack for encouraging sprawl and for the highly prescriptive nature of their model code proposals.
Zoning has long been criticized as a tool of racial and socio-economic exclusion and segregation, primarily through minimum lot-size requirements and land-use segregation (sometimes referred to as "environmental racism"). Early zoning codes were often explicitly racist.
Exclusionary practices remain common among suburbs wishing to keep out those deemed socioeconomically or ethnically undesirable: for example, representatives of the city of Barrington Hills, Illinois once told the Real Estate section of the Chicago Tribune that the city's 5-acre (20,000 m2) minimum lot size helped to "keep out the riff-raff."
Since Baltimore in 1910, numerous U.S. States created racial zoning laws (redlining); however such laws were ruled out in 1917 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such laws interfered with the property rights of owners (Buchanan v. Warley). There were repeated attempts by various states, municipalities, and individuals since then to create zoning and housing laws based on race, however such laws were eventually overturned by the courts. The legality of all discrimination in housing, by public or private entities, was ended by the Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968).
Despite such rulings, many claim that zoning laws are still used for the purpose of racial segregation.
Zoning has also been implicated as a primary driving factor in the rapidly accelerating unaffordability of housing in urban areas. One mechanism for this is zoning by many suburban and exurban communities for very large minimum residential lot and building sizes in order to preserve home values by excluding poorer people. This shifts the market toward more expensive homes than might ordinarily be built. According to the Manhattan Institute as much as half of the price paid for housing in some jurisdictions is directly attributable to the hidden costs of restrictive zoning regulation.
For example, the entire town of Los Altos Hills, California (with the exception of the local community college and a religious convent) is zoned for residential use with a minimum lot size of one acre (4,000 m²) and a limit of only one primary dwelling per lot. All these restrictions were upheld as constitutional by federal and state courts in the early 1970s. The town traditionally attempted to comply with state affordable housing requirements by counting secondary dwellings (that is, apartments over garages and guest houses) as affordable housing, and since 1989 has also allowed residents to build so-called "granny units".
In 1969 Massachusetts enacted the Massachusetts Comprehensive Permit Act: Chapter 40B, originally referred to as the anti-snob zoning law. Under this statute, in municipalities with less than 10% affordable housing, a developer of affordable housing may seek waiver of local zoning and other requirements from the local zoning board of appeals, with review available from the state Housing Appeals Committee if the waiver is denied. Similar laws are in place in other parts of the United States (e.g., Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Illinois), though their effectiveness is disputed.
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- Hernandez v. City of Hanford, 41 Cal. 4th 279 (2007) (upholding constitutionality of zoning ordinance regulating which types of stores in which zones may sell furniture in the city of Hanford, California).
- Holm, Ivar (2006). Ideas and Beliefs in Architecture and Industrial design: How attitudes, orientations, and underlying assumptions shape the built environment. Oslo School of Architecture and Design. ISBN 82-547-0174-1.
- June Manning Thomas provides a survey of the literature concerned with this particular critique of zoning[dead link]
- Amanda Erickson (August 24, 2012). "A Brief History of the Birth of Urban Planning". The Atlantic Cities. Atlantic Media Company. Retrieved August 24, 2012.
- http://www.stetsonkennedy.com/jim_crow_guide/chapter6_1.htm[dead link]
- Washington State Human Rights Commission[dead link]
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- Ybarra v. Town of Los Altos Hills, 503 F.2d 250, 254 (9th Cir. 1974).
- Town of Los Altos Hills v. Adobe Creek Properties, Inc., 32 Cal.App.3d 488 (1973).
- Town of Los Altos Hills, 2002 General Plan, Housing Element, 6.