Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Three Bold Proposals for Zoning Reform

Zoning has been front and center in recent national, state, and local debates over housing choice and affordability. In these debates, commentators often use "zoning reform" as a euphemism for eliminating zoning districts that permit only single-family detached residences. Meanwhile, on-the-ground zoning reform aims to advance a wide range of goals through a diverse set of approaches and techniques.

Zoning That Adapts to Future Change

Three recent issues of Zoning Practice have offered bold new visions for alternatives to the status quo in zoning. These visions range from a radical rebuild to an attempt to harness self-interest to advance elusive collective goals.

Minimalistic Zoning

In the December issue of Zoning Practice, "Zoning Minimalism," Norman Wright, AICP, makes a case for rebuilding zoning from the ground up. Wright acknowledges his complicity in pursuing incremental reforms that may solve one problem, only to generate new ones. And he proposes that the key to truly successful zoning reform may be the Pareto principle.

If you can identify the "vital few" zoning rules that have the greatest effects on achieving core aims, you may be able to jettison the rest of the code.

To illustrate this idea, Wright builds and tests a model zoning code that uses five simple rules to control built form:

  1. Minimum and maximum block dimensions
  2. A street design standard
  3. A build-to frontage ratio
  4. Minimum lot coverage
  5. A ground-floor transparency standard

The results of Wright's test offer a preliminary validation for his hypothesis that the most desirable features of a walkable urban environment can be tied to a small number of zoning standards.

Dynamic Zoning

In the October issue, "Dynamic Zoning," Patrick Braga posits a solution for adapting zoning to an uncertain future. Instead of relying on rigid zoning regulations to achieve a singular, static vision of the future, Braga suggests that planners and local officials should build change into the zoning code itself. By predetermining indicators or decision triggers, local officials can boost zoning's ability to respond predictably to evolving conditions.

Braga uses the phrase dynamic zoning as an umbrella term for three distinct approaches. The first approach, automatic rezoning, comprises techniques that automatically update use permissions or development standards, either on a predetermined schedule or in response to owner petition or physical or demographic changes in the target area. The second approach comprises zoning standards that combine sunrise or sunset dates with numeric thresholds. The third approach comprises mandatory periodic reviews of the zoning text and land-use decisions to identify necessary changes.

While none of these approaches is in widespread use, Braga's vision for dynamic zoning is not without precedents. As with many zoning reform proposals, the primary obstacle is likely to be reticence on the part of local elected officials and not a lack of legal authority.

Ultra-Local Zoning

In the August issue, "Smarter Zoning by Street and by Block," John Myers suggests that further devolution of zoning could provide a more politically feasible path to zoning reform than state-level preemptions of local authority. Myers proposal would put the power of upzoning in the hands of the current owners or residents of homes fronting a particular street segment or within a particular block.

Through street or block votes or petitions, these owners or residents could opt to apply preapproved zoning standards that would expand permissible housing types and increase permissible development intensities. While this precise approach has yet to be tried anywhere in the U.S., Myers is optimistic that the potential for increased land value (and revenue-generation potential) will motivate enough owners and residents to opt in to move the needle on expanding housing supply in tight housing markets.

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About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA.

December 15, 2021

By David Morley, AICP