In our last blog entry, we discussed how efforts to create a uniform zoning standard miss the mark. Such an approach places too much emphasis on regulation and process, runs counter to the realities of local control/decision-making and misunderstands the fact that Euclidian zoning is already ubiquitous in Rural America. We believe that, rather than a uniform model, what is needed is a different model.

So what would a different regulatory model for Small Towns and Rural Areas look like?  

Such a model does not exist today.  At least we have not found it, and we've done a lot of searching. But before discussing what a new model should look like, it is important to understand the current model and its shortcomings.

Standard Euclidian zoning separates uses into familiar categories - Residential, Commercial, Industrial - assigns lots sizes, coverage limits, setbacks, etc...., creates special standards for things like parking, landscaping, home occupation, etc... This is all the stuff we are used to. "Progressive" approaches may even incorporate ideas like conservation design or cluster zoning. The emphasis is on separating uses and regulating bulk and density.

The first shortcoming of standard zoning, and one of the main reasons Small Towns struggle with it, is that it is proscriptive. It lists what a community does and does not want, with restriction being the default. For example, let's say a church is allowed in a residential zone. This means that a small church with a couple dozen members that would be very compatible with the neighborhood will be allowed, as will the mega-church with 2,500 members that completely does not fit in.   Manufacturing, on the other hand, will not be allowed in a residential neighborhood, no matter if that manufacturing is missile warheads or grandpa's birdhouses.

This shortcoming creates awkward situations where obviously benign and even beneficial projects are rejected while incompatible projects are approved by right. That brings us to the second shortcoming of standard zoning: the auto-pilot feature.

When an application for a new project comes in the door, if the buildings meet the setbacks, if the coverage limits are met, if the use fits in the zone, etc.... that project is approved. There may be an opportunity to place some reasonable conditions, but an otherwise incompatible project need only meet those bulk, density and use standards and it must be approved. (Think again of the church example).

That gives rise to a third problem with zoning: kneejerk regulation. When that incompatible project is approved because it meets the ordinance ("found a loophole" is what is usually said), local planners - determined to never let that happen again - craft regulations to deal with that last development. Since it is not possible to have a specific regulation for every possible situation, the result is a constant feeling of reacting to situations instead of being proactive and a messy ordinance that overregulates in some areas while being virtually silent in others.

Proactive planners learn from their neighbor's "mistakes" and, when the tough new ordinance comes on line in the neighboring community, quickly copy and create their own version to avoid the same problems. While it is hard to fault someone for wanting to learn from others, the fourth problem of conventional zoning is that the transmission of similar proscriptive standards across jurisdictional boundaries facilitates a loss of character and uniqueness (uniformity). 

Related, a fifth problem is that standard zoning stifles creativity by segregating like uses into zones. This is the single-family residential area.  This is the highway commercial area.  Etc, etc, etc....  Within each zone there is the same lot size, setbacks, coverage limits, performance standards. This is why on the surface most small towns and rural areas of the automobile era look the same. Creativity is limited to a few parameters, and even those are typically proscriptively regulated.

Beneath the superficial, though, the sixth problem with standard zoning is that it isolates individual properties. Each lot is developed in a specific zone with a specific subset of uses available. Unless the property is on the border of that zone, the zone will not change (due to the concept of spot zoning). By unnecessarily limiting those uses (which is what zoning does), a town limits redevelopment/reuse potential, unnecessarily causing stagnation and inducing greenfield development (sprawl).

A seventh problem with standard zoning is that, over time, the regulations evolve to be ever more complicated and nuanced. Layers of special regulations are written into the code to address real or potential problems. This can be done systematically so that overall organization is maintained, but it more often than not is far more random than that.

Which leads to the eighth problem with standard zoning: It is difficult to administer and enforce.

So if someone were to sit down and create a new model for regulating land use in Small Towns and Rural Areas, that new model should: 

  1. Emphasize scale and form, not use.
  2. Provide the maximum amount of flexibility to the property owner.
  3. Facilitate community input that is proactive, not reactive.
  4. Be comprehensive in regulating the form of development.
  5. Encourage creativity.
  6. Reinforce the unique character of each community.
  7. Evolve with the community, removing all unecessary barriers to the reuse and redevelopment of properties.
  8. Be simple to understand, administer and maintain.

I would add a ninth feature as well and that would be to create the greatest amount of market feedback possible. In other words, development should be market-driven and economically sustsainable over the long term.

Can such a model be developed? Stay tuned.