|►◄ Reverse Zone|
Complete List of Posts
Tue, 08 May 2007
The theory of zoning is to make new development compatible with existing users of land, while treating all landowners equitably. If one landowner has the right to build one thing and the one next door has very different rights, then something is wrong. There are legitimate reasons why they may have different rights. To preserve the equitable treatment of landowners, there are two ways in which to make exceptions: One is to have an comprehensive plan that explains in terms of officially accepted land use objectives why people on one side of a dividing line should have rights different from those on the other side. The other is the variance route, a way for an individual property owner to argue why one lot in particular should be exempt from a general rule because his lot differs sufficiently that the spirit of the zoning rule is better applied with a variant on the letter of the rule.
When exceptions to the general rule are granted for other reasons, one can reasonably suspect that influence is at work to promote the interests of one owner over the other. Planners in some cities (Toronto, and sometimes others) have argued that these exception have become required because the official plans have not kept up with changing conditions. Individual landowners can justify the cost of re-zoning, or if required of making a small change to the comprehensive that only applies to them, but not of redoing the entire planning exercise.
Essentially, owners and planners ask for rezoning arguing that the rezoning is in accordance with the "Shadow Plan", as I call the unpublished plan in the heads of senior planners. This plan is the set of reasonings determining what zoning changes they will consider reasonable even though it is not in accordance with the official comprehensive plan. You can well imagine what knowledge of and influence over this shadow plan is worth to a developer. They can buy land valued by others according to the official comprehensive plan, and re-value it according to this shadow plan.
The "Shadow Plan" comes into effect when a few conditions arise: one is a divergence in vision between those who create the plans and those who deal with applications for changes. In some cases, the official plans may be for public consumption only, given that the are developed with a degree of public consultation and democracy that creates a momentum that no one dares challenge, but knowing that the philistines can later be kept out of the important work of development decisions. Another condition is a land market that depends on zoning changes. Once the expectation has been established that serious development proposals can get zoning changes, land values go up to unrealistic levels. The traditional mantra of developers that they can not afford to develop anything within existing zoning and that their children will go hungry if they have to follow the regulations may have a tiny speck of truth to it. Breaking out of that vicious circle requires both the elimination of the "shadow plan", either by adopting one that is enforceable or by some backbone in enforcing it, and a change in the political culture whereby following the rules is for suckers.
The practice of changing the zoning for a single parcel only is sometimes known as spot zoning. It is illegal in some jurisdictions. It is definitely frowned upon as a failure in the planning process elsewhere. It creates a patchwork of small irregular zoning areas that are tantamount to not having zoning at all - everything is changeable if you ask the right way.
How changeable is zoning? What is the "right" size for a zone? Is spot zoning a symptom of a malaise in planning and if so is the problem influence or lack of comprehensive plans?
In a nearly-scientific study, I assembled a few zoning maps from different cities to see how many zones and exceptions were typical. The methodology is not extremely rigorous but here it is. First, I searched for online zoning maps in cities that are reputed for patchwork zoning. "Reputed" depends on what I've read or who I've spoken to lately. Second, I looked for generally comparable areas, somewhat hampered by my lack of in-depth knowledge of many of these cities. Starting from downtown, I went generally West, or if it seemed that West would encounter some geographical obstacle I chose another likely-looking direction. I was looking for a 100-block area, reasonably close to downtown, with mostly residential but partially commercial zoning. I was looking for a 100-block area that included if possible two distinct types of street layout. My guess was that these were the types of areas where there would be some development pressure and some local resistance. It happens that this often hit poorer areas of town. Anecdotally, poorer areas of town can be subject to more development pressure since residents are often renters and may not be well equipped to influence political decisions.
So here are the results (click pictures to zoom) :
So what works best? Some cities have little or no zoning at all. Houston is the most famous example. Is this the cause of sprawl, or are zoning codes the cause of sprawl? Similarly, zoning can be very restrictive, forcing complete separation of uses, or the regulations can be comprehensive enough for a single zone to allow the fabled "mixed use" while constraining it so that the market does not re-segregate the uses. But what does not work is sucker zoning, where your property right are whatever you can cajole and bully the city into giving you.