Lending a Helping Hand: What Planners Can Do to Turn Around Distressed Properties

Zoning Practice — December 2009

By Dwight Merriam, FAICP


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There are opportunities with distressed properties to turn them into beneficial uses, but in most instances some type of zoning relief will be necessary. It is axiomatic that distressed properties are likely to be older properties that are physically, functionally, and economically obsolescent in some form.

Along with such obsolescence typically comes the unhappy status of being a nonconforming use. And along with that comes the inability to expand or alter the use because one or more of the dimensional requirements at the site have been exceeded or the use proposed is simply not permitted. in short, these older, distressed properties are trapped inside zoning restrictions that preclude attempts to reposition them in the marketplace and return them to profitability.

This issue of Zoning Practice explores how rezoning, converting nonconformities into permitted uses, variances, and overlay districts can loosen the joints of zoning while still respecting local plans and neighborhood character.


Page Count
Date Published
Dec. 1, 2009
Adobe PDF
American Planning Association

About the Author

Dwight Merriam, FAICP
Dwight H. Merriam, FAICP, a lawyer and land use planner, is a Fellow in the American College of Real Estate Lawyers, a Fellow and Past President and of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and Past Chair of the ABA Section of State and Local Government Law. He has published over 200 articles and 13 books, including co-editing the treatise Rathkopf’s The Law of Zoning and Planning. UMass BA (cum laude), UNC MRP, and Yale JD.