In Defense of Local Zoning

Zoning Practice — May 2023

By Harvey Jacobs


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Zoning is under very active attack. Multiple states have already made substantial changes to state enabling acts, and other states are considering major revisions. Almost all of these changes are prompted by concerns about low- and middle-income housing availability and cost and, thus, are intended to facilitate more affordable housing alternatives.

In the most radical of situations, the very existence of exclusive single-family zoning districts is being targeted, as are densities adjacent to public transit. The states getting the most attention in the reform efforts include the western states of California, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, and the eastern states of Connecticut and Maine, though there are others.

This issue of Zoning Practice joins the current debate about zoning’s future by arguing in defense of local zoning. It puts the current proposals into a broader historical context of proposed zoning reform over the decades, wondering whether current reformers (like past ones) may be expecting too much from proposed changes. It also raises the issue of whether the debate is really about zoning per se or is, instead, a thinly veiled critique of local control.


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Date Published
May 1, 2023
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American Planning Association

About the Author

Harvey Jacobs
Harvey M. Jacobs, Ph.D. is on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he holds a joint appointment as Professor in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture (Urban and Regional Planning Program) and the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Prof. Jacobs’ academic specialty is the social and legal aspects of land policy, with a particular focus on property rights. Prof. Jacobs has been at UW-Madison since 1984; he has served as Chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning (1995-1998), director of the University’s Land Tenure Center (1999-2002), and the Chair of the Environment and Resources graduate program of the Nelson Institute (2015-2017). For the 2015-2016 academic year he was a Vilas Life Cycle Professor. Prof. Jacobs received his graduate planning degrees from Cornell University (MRP 1981, Ph.D., 1984). Throughout his career Prof. Jacobs has won awards and recognition for his research and teaching including from: Cornell University, the Journal of the American Planning Association , the Wisconsin Student Association, the University of Wisconsin Teaching Academy, the Fulbright Scholar Program, The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, The Rockefeller Foundation, and the Government of France; in 2008 Prof. Jacobs was honored with the receipt of an L’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, rank Chevalier (Knight). In 2011 Prof. Jacobs served as the John Bousfield Distinguished Visitor in Planning at the University of Toronto. For the seven year period 2012-2019 Prof. Jacobs is serving as a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Management Research at Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands. For the period 2014-2019 he has been certified as a Fulbright Specialist by the U.S. Council for International Exchange of Scholars. Prof. Jacobs has been invited to give lectures on his research and consult on aspects of his work in countries around the world, including in western and central Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and throughout North America. Prof. Jacobs is the co-editor of Land Policies in India: Promises, Practices and Challenges (Springer – India Studies in Science and Business, 2017), editor of Private Property in the 21st Century: The Future of an American Ideal (Edward Elgar, 2004) and Who Owns America? Social Conflict Over Property Rights (University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), and the author or co-author of over 100 professional articles and essays, of which over 40 focus specifically on the social and legal aspects of property rights. Most generally, Prof. Jacobs focuses on how societies define property, and the policy structures they develop to manage the relationship between private and public rights in property. More complete information about his teaching and research program can be found on the web at: