Zoning: What’s The Point? (June Housing News Column)

By: Matt Morrow, HBA Executive Officer

Don’t let that headline fool you. Zoning has a specific and needed purpose within growing communities. Increasingly, the challenge is that few agree on just what that purpose should be.

Recent encounters have brought this point into clear focus. Springfield City Council recently had the opportunity to apply its much ballyhooed multifamily matrix system to a proposed apartment housing development, and used it to shelve a good proposal. This is the same matrix system that was nearly a year in the making, while all new multifamily rezoning cases were mothballed by the city. The city’s multifamily moratorium was based on exactly zero objective evidence that the city was “overbuilt” in multifamily units. What a sad and unnecessary stifling of economic growth and development that decision turned out to be. The resulting matrix point system now guides decisions on all rezoning proposals for multifamily use. The jury is still out as to how well it will work.

Meanwhile, I have had the opportunity to meet recently with a wide variety of land use stakeholders as a part of an advisory group convened by the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. That group of builders, developers, realtors, farmers, landowners, and environmentalists will make recommendations as Greene County reworks a new land use plan. It has been a constructive collaborative group that I am hopeful county officials can utilize as a resource on future land use issues. Yet even within that reasonable group, there are occasional voices who see planning and zoning as the hammer to regulate into existence their ideal view of a utopian, picture perfect community – as if somehow all the land belongs to them – or the local government – and the people who legally own it are either cooperative squatters or obstinate carpetbaggers.

These two issues have, at their core, the same problem: too many people fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of zoning. The purpose of zoning is not to dictate to every property owner a very narrow set of uses that they are granted the privilege of conducting with their land (although it too often is used that way). This mindset sees zoning as narrow, hard and fast, and permanent – and it misses the whole point.

Zoning is not a dictatorial imposition of permanent land use. It should be a tool that local governments use in those rare and extreme cases where someone’s chosen land use would badly harm the rest of the community. From this perspective, individual property rights are carefully guarded and protected. Land use is allowable for nearly any purpose the property owner has in mind, unless that land use would cause serious harm to the broader community. Even in those rare cases, the property owner is given every opportunity to mitigate that harm so rezoning can be granted.

Individual property rights are serious business. They are the fourth amendment in our Bill of Rights. For any government to restrict individual property rights, it had better be a very serious matter. For instance, reasonable onsite infrastructure improvements are an acceptable part of land development permitting and rezoning cases. Why? Because without them, the affect of changing land use could harm the broader community.

Yet the bar for rezoning denial often is set much too low. The “harmful community impact” of a landowner developing his own property may be little more than obstructing the scenic view from the front porch of a dozen or so neighboring residents. While we can sympathize with such inconveniences, they are not worthy of stripping someone else of their individual property rights.

Similarly, the mere fact that a property is “already zoned” for something else should matter little when considering an application for rezoning. Why was it zoned that way? Is that reasoning still relevant? Is the request a reasonable land use? Is it consistent with the community’s comprehensive plan? And most importantly, can it be done without causing major harm to the broader community? These are the relevant questions. By asking questions like these and respecting individual property rights, zoning officials can start seeking ways to approve projects rather than looking for reasons to deny them.