How Did Your Town’s Zoning Regulations Start?

Jeffrey A. Gordon, M.D.

Towns use zoning regulations to provide order to land use and development, following a master municipal plan that is the town’s vision for how it wants to guide future growth. Planning and zoning commissions create these regulations and then make decisions based upon them. In the early 1900’s, however, these concepts were not comprehensive, cohesive or even in existence. But that was to change.

The Equitable Building, a 38-story, 538-foot high office building, was constructed in New York City in 1915. It dwarfed nearby residences, blocking out sunlight and occupying all available land upon which it was built. NYC was experiencing significant growth, so people became concerned that if more such buildings were constructed, then the city would become canyons of dark, congested streets – not something that was desirable. In response, NYC developed new regulations in 1916: residential districts in which tall office buildings were not allowed; set backs of buildings from streets and neighboring properties; limits on the percentage of the lots that could be used to construct buildings; height restrictions; and design requirements for buildings not to rise vertically straight up, but rather to rise in a tiered (tapered) manner to allow sunlight to reach the ground levels. The Empire State building’s shape is an example of what followed from these regulations. In fact, until the Empire State Building was built in 1931, the Equitable Building was the tallest building in NYC. These new regulations were precedent setting in that they were one of the first “modern”, city-wide, hands-on zoning tools used to directly guide urban growth on a large scale.

More uniform, comprehensive, national standards were then to be developed in the 1920’s. Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretary before he became President, brought together experts (including Edward Bassett, the “father of American zoning”, who was instrumental in creating NYC’s 1916 zoning regulations) onto the Advisory Commission on City Planning and Zoning. This commission published A Zoning Primer (1922), A Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (1924), and a Standard City Planning Enabling Act (1928). At the same time, Hoover appointed a separate but related commission to develop standard sets of building codes. The enabling acts described the responsibility and authority of government to ensure proper public planning and zoning; the purposes underpinning municipal zoning; the need for a master plan to guide a community’s future growth; the creation of planning and zoning commissions; the division of land into zoning districts on a zoning map; the subdivision of land for future uses; the procedures to follow in establishing, changing, and enforcing zoning ordinances; the creation of “boards of adjustments” (zoning boards of appeals) to deal with unique zoning circumstances; and the creation of regional planning initiatives.

Hoover wrote that “the discovery that it is practicable by city zoning to carry out reasonable neighborly associations has made an almost instant appeal to the American people” and that “proper zoning can be undertaken … without injustice and without violating property rights”. Many states, cities, and towns across the country quickly adopted the enabling acts for the use of municipal planning and zoning. However, the use of zoning was not welcome by everyone.

The town of Euclid, Ohio established land use zoning laws in 1922 as a means of preventing the industrial growth of neighboring Cleveland from altering its village character. This type of zoning (called Euclidean) is of a simple format, using a zoning map to show the locations of allowable land use and development (residential, commercial, industrial, and other) and regulations to detail what can and cannot be done in each district. The districts look like non-overlapping blocks adjacent to each other on a map. Euclidian zoning is still prevalent in its use today, although there are variations on its theme and there are other zoning concepts used. The legal challenge to Euclid’s zoning ordinance was on the basis that government was limiting the rights of private citizens to use their land (the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution called for due process and equal protection). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1926 that Euclid’s zoning regulations were constitutional because they afforded the important public protections of 1.) letting people know what types of land uses and developments were not compatible with other uses and 2.) planning comprehensively (not haphazardly) for the future of municipal growth. However, government’s power to create and enforce zoning laws was neither limitless nor without a good reason. In 1928, the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional zoning ordinances used by Cambridge, MA that did not have a stated valid public purpose. Through these and other court rulings, the new, but growing use of municipal planning and zoning took a foothold across America. Over time, the importance of finding a balance between public and private land use rights and responsibilities would repeatedly change the legal use of zoning.

Although the enabling acts of the 1920’s were an important standardized set of recommendations adopted across the country, it was recognized that individual states and municipalities would use them as guides to create regulations that worked best for their own circumstances. What works in one state, region or even part of an individual municipality, may not work elsewhere. Local planning and zoning, taking into account the experiences of a community and the consensus needs and wishes of the people who live in those communities, can provide good local results with appropriate accountability. As your town’s planning and zoning commission works to review, update, and create the zoning regulations and master planning documents of your town, it is doing so as a continuum of the work that has gone on years before. Your own input, like those of the people of NYC in 1916 or Euclid in 1922, can make a big difference in what happens in your community.

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