Basics of Your Town's Planning and Zoning

Jeffrey A. Gordon, M.D.

As a member of Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission, I am often asked “why are there zoning regulations” and “what are they all about”.  Let’s take a visit to some basics about your town’s planning and zoning.
    When you drive in your car or walk around, you see your town from a ground level view.  You are not able to see your entire town.  However, if you were to look down from a plane flying above, then the perspective would be much different.  Laid out below you would be expanses of various types of land use activities: residential neighborhoods, commercial stores, industrial buildings, public services, recreational facilities, farms, and undisturbed natural areas.  These individual land uses may be situated in separate parts of your town or they may be mixed in with each other.
    Everything in your town requires a space somewhere for it to exist and to function.  You need places to live; streets, public services, and infrastructure; industry, manufacturing and commerce for products, services, jobs, and tax revenue; agriculture for food; and open spaces and parks to enjoy.  There is only so much physical room in your town to put all of these things, yet you want to benefit from them all.  As a result, incongruous activities interact or interfere, invariably, with each other.
    Zoning regulations arose from communities wanting to protect residential neighborhoods from industrial and commercial development.  Since growth was inevitable, municipal planning and zoning was needed to guide it.  Otherwise, once development occurred, it could not easily be relocated or removed if later, the end result was not good.
    The most prevalent type of traditional zoning is called Euclidean, named for the town of Euclid, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland.  In 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a legal challenge to Euclid’s zoning ordinance and upheld for the first time as constitutional the government’s responsibility to regulate the use, development, and preservation of land.  The zoning ordinance of Euclid stated the need “to preserve the present character of said Village and the public improvement therein, to prevent congestion, and to promote and provide for the health, safety, convenience, comfort, prosperity, and general welfare of the citizens” and that the “various uses of property inconsistent with the proposed plan of Village of Euclid … would permanently injure or partially nullify such orderly plan of development”.
    Does this sound familiar to you?  We all share these same concerns today.
    Euclid’s zoning regulations divided the town into non-overlapping districts adjacent to each other, in which certain types of land uses were permitted or prohibited.  A zoning map was drawn showing these districts.  Incompatible uses were kept apart from each other.  A priority list was established such that “valuable” uses (residential) were the most protected and “less desirable” uses (industrial) were the least protected.  In small, quiet neighborhoods, the only permitted uses were for single-family homes, agriculture, public parks, and electric railway stations.  The converse of this was that many land use activities were prohibited in the “valuable” zoning districts.  Lesser-protected zoning districts were permitted to have more varied, as well as busier and larger, activities within them, so that in the least protected zoning district (industrial), all types of land uses were allowed (i.e.- little or no prohibitions).
    Within each of Euclid’s zoning districts, dimensional standards were applied, serving as guides and limits to the scope of permitted land use activities.  This served as another means of protecting the “valuable” zoning districts.  Towns currently use dimensional standards to regulate the types of businesses permitted; the size, bulk, and height of buildings; the layout of neighborhoods; the design of streets and the setbacks of buildings from them; the preservation of land; the number of people living in a certain area (population density); the use of signs and lighting; the infrastructure for public safety and health; and the layout of parking.  Some towns also use design guidelines to encourage a building’s street level visual appearance to be compatible with the type of neighborhood it is located in (for example, how a store will look if built near houses).
    A town uses planning documents, such as a plan of conservation and development (POCD), to set the stage for creating zoning regulations and maps to deal with growth and development.  You look on the map to see where a zoning district is located and then read the corresponding regulations to learn what you can and cannot do in that district.  Your application for a particular land use is approved, modified or rejected by a Planning and Zoning Commission based upon these regulations (and state statutes).  It is this commission that creates, administers and enforces the regulations, with the help of a Town Planner or Zoning Enforcement Officer.  It sounds simple, but it is actually complex and challenging.
    There are many different types of land developments and activities.  If your town wants to permit or prohibit them, then it adds language to the regulations to do so.  For example, some residential zones may permit only one type of housing, such as single-family homes, so as not to mix in large apartment buildings.  Other residential zones may allow for different types of housing in the same district, such as apartments, townhouse complexes, and condominiums.  Variations on a theme can be applied to different types of commercial uses (small country shops, larger retail stores, strip malls, and big shopping centers) and industrial activities (light, medium, and heavy).
    Having a variety of options can provide necessary flexibility for how the zoning regulations deal with various types of land use activities.  A caveat is not to let the regulations become unwieldy, unfriendly, and unfair.  If taken to an extreme, your town no longer is viewed as one community entity, but instead, is seen as a collection of innumerable micro-sections that are compartmentalized by specific, possibly singular uses.  This becomes a situation of not being able to see the forest for the trees.      Sometimes keeping things apart is good.  Other times it could too strictly keep apart and limit the appropriate combinations of different, yet desirable, mixed uses.  People need access from their homes to places of work, shopping, public services, recreation, etc….  Some people believe that traditional zoning has caused various land uses to become segregated, not integrated.  Neighborhoods too separated from other areas of town, and with more such neighborhoods built over time, cause people to frequently use their cars on increasingly busier streets to travel from their homes to where they want and need to go.  The term urban sprawl was first used in the 1950’s to describe this phenomenon of what can happen as a municipality’s population grows, expanding out from its center.  Yet, people do want to keep their residential neighborhoods quiet and open.
    Zoning may inadvertently convert what was once a permissible activity into a prohibited one.  Someone who cannot now use their land for a purpose which was allowed previously, may find themself in a frustrating quandary.  They could seek a variance from a zoning board of appeals, which can rule only upon a hardship caused by a unique set of conditions existing on their land that are nonconforming with the regulations (and not having been self-created by the owner’s actions).  They could petition for a zoning change.  For all of these things, care must be taken not to create spot zoning, which is an illegal granting of a specific land use activity, incompatible with surrounding areas, on an individual parcel of land that is outside of the exceptions allowed in that zoning district by the regulations.
    Zoning regulations remain the hands-on tools your town government uses daily to achieve the goals of its master planning documents to guide future growth and to preserve the past.  When used wisely, when understood for its strengths and weaknesses, and when imbued with community involvement (from people like you), it achieves much that is good.
    For all of the many types of land uses to coexist, both in their physical presence and in their impact upon you and others, your town needs to have appropriate zoning regulations that follow the principles of its municipal master plan and that are flexible enough to deal with the many realities that change over time.  Each town may approach this differently, but all towns fundamentally seek to find the balance between what you need (and want) and how to make such happen in a way with which everyone in your town can live (literally).
    Land use regulations may seem abstract, but they are indeed real, impacting the land you own, the public land you enjoy, and the private land used by local businesses.  It requires practical commonsense and an understanding of what can work, what may not work, and what pitfalls to avoid.


Dr. Jeffrey A. Gordon is Chairman of Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission.  This article neither reflects any official statement of nor any specific work being done by the Commission.  Check out www.JeffreyGordon.com.

Back to the list