Zoning laws regulate how land is used and how buildings are constructed. Zoning is a powerful tool but limited. Zoning can’t do everything, and it’s misused far too often.
Many community members think zoning legislation can be used to coax developers in a different direction and to address community complaints about lack of development.
Unfortunately, zoning codes are not a vehicle for forcing desired changes in a community. Here is a breakdown of what zoning can actually do well and what it can’t do.
What Zoning Can Do
- Zoning can regulate how land is used - zoning is most often used to separate different types of uses (e.g. residential, commercial, industrial) to limit the negative impacts of one use on the surrounding properties.
- Zoning can regulate the general form of buildings - Zoning can effectively regulate a building size in relation to the lot it is located on, often referred to as the building massing.
- Zoning can regulate the intensity of a use - Intensity refers to how much of a use is allowed in the zone. Intensity is generally controlled by the building density, floor area ratio, or the number of residential dwelling units in an acre.
- Zoning can guide the environment surrounding a building - These regulations contribute to creating an environment that is visually compelling to someone. This can be lot widths, windows on building front, distance between building, or recessed entrances for example.
What Zoning Can’t Do
- Zoning cannot force a certain type of business to show up - The local market and the demographics determine what kind of business opens up in the community. If there are not enough customers to support something it does not matter the zoning.
- Zoning cannot force an existing business to leave - If a business was lawfully operating, zoning cannot force it to leave. The best approach for encouraging a business to leave is for that community to stop supporting it. If a business cannot stay profitable in one location, it will find a new one where it can be profitable.
- Zoning cannot stop businesses co-locating in the same area - zoning cannot stop multiple versions of the same type of business from setting up shop near each other. A common criticism of development is that one neighborhood has too many of one type of store. Zoning simply gives permission regarding what types of uses can be built in a certain area, it does not state how many of that use can be built.
- Zoning cannot limit how many people are in one area - zoning cannot control people because people are not tied to the land. Families grow and shrink, and people move in and out of communities. People and population are too fluid for local governments to regulate through zoning.