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Zoning at 85: Do we still need it?
Myths 1 & 2: It's un-American; Rural areas don't need it

This year marks the 85th anniversary of the landmark United States Supreme Court case Euclid v Ambler Realty, which upheld the basic constitutionality of local zoning. Given the current debate between liberals and conservatives about the appropriate role of regulation in shaping our economy and our communities, it seems timely to ask the question: do we still need zoning?

MYTH #1 – Zoning is un-American

The practice of land use planning in America can be traced back over 400 years to the English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. The settlement that sprang up along the James River in 1607 was in many respects a planned community. The schematic that became Jamestown featured principles long associated with the 20th century planning technique known as Planned Unit Development (PUD). According to planning historian Eldon James "the planning concerns influencing the Jamestown of 1607 included security issues, access and movement considerations, the use and preservation of natural resources, the procurement and storage of drinking water, the collection and disposal of waste, as well as the location and arrangement of residential areas in relationship to processing and manufacturing enterprises." In short Jamestown was planned, designed, constructed and managed for the well-being and general welfare of its inhabitants.

Despite its long history, zoning disputes often inspire inflated rhetoric. Perhaps this is because zoning does mean that the interests of an individual land owner must sometimes yield to the interests of the community. But this is as American as apple pie or baseball. In fact for more than 160 years our courts have consistently held that the US Constitution allows for public regulation of land.

To understand why, consider the old principle of law that says "your right to swing your fist ends where my face begins." This principle applies to real estate as well. It means that with rights come responsibilities. Even political philosopher John Locke held as a basic assumption that "free men would never exercise rights without recognizing the obligations that the exercise of those rights implied."

Myth #2 – Small towns and rural areas don't need to control uses of land.

Fact: It is true that zoning is far more common in densely populated cities than in more sparsely populated rural areas, but land use regulation is needed in small towns as well as big cities. This is because change is inevitable every place in America. Demographics, technology, immigration, the global economy, extreme weather and many other factors are changing communities whether they like it or not.

Some years ago, friends bought a beautiful historic house in an un-zoned county in Western North Carolina. What attracted them to this rural location was not only the house, but the beautiful views across the surrounding farm fields to the mountains beyond. About a year after moving into their home they took a long planned trip to Europe. When they returned, much to their surprise and chagrin, they found a giant cellular communications tower under construction directly across the road. Because there was no zoning there was no notice, no public hearing, and no opportunity to object. Their unspoiled view was gone and their only recourse was to either live with the cell tower or put their home on the market and move.

Stories like this have been repeated thousands of times in un-zoned rural America. Sometimes it is a cell tower, other times it is a billboard, a race track, a hog waste impoundment lot, an auto repair facility or other noxious use. There are really only two kinds of change in the world today: planned change and unplanned change. Land use regulation linked to a community plan is a way to mitigate and manage change. Rural communities that set no standards will compete to the bottom. This is because, communities that are unwilling to say "no" to anything, will get the worst of everything.

Likewise, rural landowners who want to protect the status quo have no real choice except to plan for the future. In many communities, the old-timers who most abhor change are often the first to realize that without sensible land use controls, everything they love about their community will ultimately disappear. Wayne Oldroyd, the former Director of Community Development for the small town of Maryland Heights, Missouri said "linkage of vision and planning to zoning is what enables the creation of a community."

Continued on Thursday:
Part III - Myths 3 and 4: (3) Land use controls will reduce property values and increase taxes.  (4) Land use planning is a bad idea.

© 2011 Urban Land Institute.

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Part I: Zoning at 85: Do we still need it?

Part II - Myths 1 and 2: (1) Zoning is un-American and (2) Small towns and rural areas don't need to control uses of land.

Part III - Myths 3 and 4: (3) Land use controls will reduce property values and increase taxes and (4) Land use planning is a bad idea.