Zoning Codes and What They Control

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Zoning codes, laws or ordinances for a municipality control many facets of the use of the land, including what can be built upon it and how the structures can be used. Some things controlled include:

• Size of lots for subdivision
• Types of structures, as in residential, commercial, etc.
• Use of the land for agriculture, industrial or other uses
• External appearance or style of structures
• Density - or how many structures/units in a given area
• Setbacks - how far apart structures must be

Zoning codes are usually very strictly interpreted and enforced. However, they must remain flexible to allow for changing community profiles and uses.

Zoning Examples and Definitions

When it comes to zoning, a great number of rules are based on families and single family homes.  From the NY Dept. of State site:  Courts have regularly found a legitimate purpose in zoning regulations which are aimed at achieving a homogeneous, traditional single-family neighborhood. "A quiet place where yards are wide, people few, and motor vehicles restricted are legitimate guidelines in a land-use project addressed to family needs," according to the U.S. Supreme Court in Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1, 9, 94 S Ct 1536, 39 L Ed 2d 797 (1974), a case which upheld, as constitutional, a zoning definition of family against a challenge that it violated the equal protection clause.

The City of Austin, Texas site speaks to zoning districts division:  Zoning Districts are established to promote compatible patterns of land use within the city limits. Zoning districts also establish site development regulations and performance standards appropriate to the purposes and the uses allowed in each district. Distinct zoning districts exist for residential, office, retail and industrial uses. Furthermore, specific use restrictions, site development regulations or performance standards may apply to zoning districts combined with special overlay or combining districts.

The City of Atlanta, GA does a good job of explaining how they look at zoning:  The City of Atlanta is divided into zones or districts that regulate the physical development of the land and limit the uses to which a property may be put. These zoning districts also regulate the height, overall size, and placement of buildings on a lot, the density at which buildings may be constructed, and the number of parking spaces that must accompany each new building.

Portland, OR addresses non-conformance in zoning this way:  Nonconforming situations are created when the application of a specific zone to a site changes, or a zoning regulation changes. As part of the change, existing uses, density, or development might no longer be allowed. The intent of the change is not to force all noncomplying situations to be immediately brought into conformance. Instead, the intent is to guide future uses and development in a new direction consistent with City policy, and, eventually, bring them into conformance.

The Department of Justice, in the ADA, Americans With Disabilities Act, makes it clear that zoning should be used in compliance:  Access to civic life by people with disabilities is a fundamental goal of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To ensure that this goal is met, Title II of the ADA requires State and local governments to make their programs and services accessible to persons with disabilities. This requirement extends not only to physical access at government facilities, programs, and events -- but also to policy changes that governmental entities must make to ensure that all people with disabilities can take part in, and benefit from, the programs and services of State and local governments. In addition, governmental entities must ensure effective communication -- including the provision of necessary auxiliary aids and services -- so that individuals with disabilities can participate in civic life.

There is even coaching from the CDC, Centers for Disease Control, to municipalities to use zoning for health reasons:

From a public health perspective, zoning can be instrumental to promote physical activity, increase safety, and promote good nutrition. Examples of local jurisdictions using zoning to promote healthy nutrition include reducing the density of fast food restaurants in a particular area, restricting fast food restaurants within a specified distance from schools, incentivizing farming in urban areas, and incentivizing development of large grocery stores in urban areas.