Spotlight on Zoning Practice

Demystifying the Zoning Reform Process

It's much easier to talk about how some common zoning practices are dysfunctional than to organize an effort to rewrite a zoning code. This is, perhaps, an obvious statement, but it's also a confession. As the editor of Zoning Practice, I get to talk about zoning reform ideas all the time, but I seldom pitch those ideas directly to local officials and have never, to date, had to plan and execute a major zoning reform effort.

In the January issue of Zoning Practice, "8 Steps to an Effective Code Transition," Rhys Wilson demystifies the process of replacing an existing development code with a new code. As the title suggests, Wilson distills the code-transition process down to eight core steps, but he also acknowledges that building a common understanding of the purpose and scope of the effort and the means of integrating stakeholder input is crucial to success.

When Ad-Hoc Revisions Won't Cut It

In some sense, the time for zoning reform is always now. It's impossible for static zoning provisions to fit dynamic community conditions (including evolving aspirations) for long. That's why many communities adopt multiple code updates every year. Eventually, though, ad-hoc revisions won't cut it, and a complete overhaul is necessary. But, when you're on the frontlines as a local planner (or experienced developer), it isn't always clear that a code has crossed that tipping point.

As Wilson points out, there are at least five common triggers for a major zoning reform process:

  • Prevent litigation
  • Align codes with new planning policies
  • Provide better and more consistent development outcomes
  • Promote equity, inclusion, and accessibility
  • Alleviate public scrutiny

And, in practice, it's often a combination of these factors that leads to a complete rewrite. According to Wilson, whether a community is overhauling its code "in-house" or in partnership with external consultants, all key participants must have a clear understanding of why the time for action is now before finalizing the project scope and work plan.

Making the Most of a Rare Opportunity

Transitioning to a new zoning code is a major project, in many cases taking a year or more of focused work to complete. Given the time and resources necessary to do it well, it's crucial to make the most of what is, often, a once-in-a-generation opportunity. As Wilson points out, one key ingredient is soliciting and using community input early and often.

Every community has a core group of "usual suspect" stakeholders, including staff, local design professionals, and members of the local business community, that have important insights about problems with the existing code. However, zoning affects every segment of the community and broadening participation in the code-transition process can surface other important issues and inform new code provisions.

According to Wilson, the project team will need to create a safe and inclusive environment, where members of traditionally underrepresented groups feel comfortable participating and have confidence that their participation is worthwhile. And this typically doesn't happen through standard engagement methods alone. Wilson stresses the importance of leveraging online tools, meeting community members in places where they naturally gather, and providing translation services to maximize participation.

8 Steps to an Effective Code Transition

Each issue of Zoning Practice provides practical guidance for planners and land-use attorneys engaged in drafting or administering local land-use and development regulations. An annual subscription to ZP includes access to the complete archive of previous issues.

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About the Author
David Morley, AICP, is a research program and QA manager with APA and editor of Zoning Practice.

January 13, 2023

By David Morley, AICP