Zoning is a North American term for a system of land-use regulation. The word is
derived from the practice of designating permitted uses of land based on mapped
zones which separate one part of a community from another. Zoning regulations
fall under the police power rights governments may exercise over real property.
Theoretically, its primary purpose is to segregate uses that are thought to be
incompatible; in practice, zoning is used as a permitting system to prevent new
development from harming existing residents or businesses. Zoning is commonly
controlled by local governments such as counties or municipalities.
Zoning commonly includes 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.
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.
Types of residential zones would be R1 for single-family homes, R2 for
two-family homes, and R3 for multiple-family homes.
Origins and History of Zoning:
New York City adopted the first zoning regulations to apply city-wide in 1916 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
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.
By the late 1920s most of the nation had developed a set of zoning regulations
that met the needs of the locality. New York City went on to develop ever more
complex set of zoning regulations, including floor-area ratio regulations, air
rights and others according to the density-specific needs of the neighborhoods.
Among large cities in the United States, Houston, Texas is unique in having no
zoning ordinance. Houston voters have rejected efforts to implement zoning in
1948, 1962 and 1993.
Types of Zoning:
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
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 14th Amendment
of the U.S. 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). See below for more information.
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
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
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 FAR (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.
Design-based zoning relies on inter-related schedules of rules to be applied to
development sites according to both prescriptive and discretionary criteria.
These criteria are typically dependent on lot size, location, proximity, and
other various site- and use-specific characteristics.
Design-based codes offer considerably more flexibility than Euclidean codes, but
can be very complex to create and administer. Design-based codes have not been
widely adopted in the United States and are often criticized as
overly-constraining and difficult to interpret where they have been used.
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
created "form districts" for Louisville Metro. Each form district was intended
to recognize that some areas of the city were suburban in nature, and some
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 from the property line, while in a suburban
"neighborhood" there might be no maximum setback at all.
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.
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. 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 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
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 institued 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,
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.
Some Limitations and Criticisms of Zoning:
Land-use zoning is considered by some to be an important tool in the treatment
of certain social ills, a part of the larger concept of social engineering.
Criticism of zoning is widespread, however, and its effectiveness as a tool for
positive social change is debatable.
Existing development in a community is generally not affected by the new zoning
laws because it is "grandfathered" (or legally non-conforming), 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.
More prescriptive zoning codes tend to give rise to a phenomenon known
colloquially as "Design by Zoning," or DBZ. Jurisdictions with highly
prescriptive zoning codes can force the uniform adoption of (often
unintentionally negative) aesthetic qualities in all new construction due to the
inflexibility of the zoning ordinances. This can lead to urban environments
dominated by apparently nonsensical or awkward building configurations. An
example of this has occurred in the application of the increasingly-complex
low-rise multi-family residential code in Seattle, Washington.
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 the
separation of homes from employment and the rise of "car culture." Some
communities have begun to encourage development of denser, 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. Recently, the New Urbanists have also come under attack for the
negative aspects of the highly prescriptive nature of their model code
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. June Manning Thomas provides a survey of the
literature concerned with this particular critique of zoning.
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 minimum lot size helped to "keep out
Zoning and Housing Affordability:
Zoning has also been implicated as a primary driving factor in the rapidly
accelerating unaffordability of housing in urban areas. According to critics, as
much as half of the price paid for housing in some jurisdictions is directly
attributable to the hidden costs of restrictive zoning regulation.