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Loving and Hating Zoning

Americans have a love-hate relationship with zoning. When we need a permit to do something new with our land or buildings it seems like a bureaucratic maze that takes far too long to navigate. But when our neighbor wants to do something new and different with her land we want notice ahead of time – and maybe a meeting or hearing so we can object to it. Planners and “zoners” live with this tension every day. Whether you want zoning and land use permits to go fast or slow depends a lot on whether you are the applicant or the neighbor. For those of us who write zoning and development codes, no matter how you try to resolve these tensions you’ll be criticized for doing exactly the wrong thing. But an increasing number of American cities are viewing zoning not as a balancing act between applicants and neighbors but as part of a much bigger puzzle. Increasingly, they see zoning as an essential tool in achieving key policy goals like job creation, environmental sustainability, and transparent government. Those larger concerns have always been there – but the rise in public concern about both sustainability and the economy seems to have made the high stakes of zoning clearer to elected officials throughout the country. Not surprisingly, elected officials want zoning reformed to encourage business growth and development. Communities as diverse as Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Calgary, Alberta, are looking for ways to remove procedural steps and public hearings from the development approval process. More surprisingly, however, the recession of 2008 has not led cities to abandon their desire for development quality or more environmentally sustainable. Over the past year, I have asked clients the question “Are you willing to lower your quality standards in order to reduce the construction and site development costs?”, and the answer has been a resounding “No.” Or rather “No, make it faster and more predictable, but get at least the same level of ‘green’ and ‘quality’ in the end.” Also somewhat surprising is the fact that few cities want to achieve zoning efficiency by excluding the public from the process. Instead, they generally want the public (especially the neighbors) consulted earlier and more informally, rather than in formal hearings later in the process. They are seeing the advantages of what planners have been pushing for years. Early neighborhood consultations allow for less adversarial conversation and for designs to be rethought before expensive architectural and engineering fees have been incurred. Late involvement in public hearings does the opposite. So, cities are retaining those public hearings mandated by state law but trying to remove others in favor of early public consultations. These trends are playing out in communities as different as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Dublin, Ohio. These are healthy trends. Cities and counties everywhere are squeezed for money and having to “do more with less”, and in our globalized economy those trends will continue. If police, fire, and parks departments have to do more with less, planning departments will not (and should not) be exempt. Making zoning more efficient forces elected officials to make hard decisions about whether they want to rethink (1) the quality and sustainability they require from builders or (2) the process it takes to get that quality. They are choosing the latter.