Tribal Zoning, Sovereignty in Action

Zoning Practice — November 2023

By Margo Hill, John Tovey, AICP


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Planners cannot understand or do good planning in Indian Country or work with tribal governments without knowing some American Indian history or understanding the concepts of tribal sovereignty. Tribes are often the largest employers in their county and own federal trust lands off reservation. Federal law requires tribal consultation for environmental reviews in "usual and accustomed areas" and consultation for historic preservation. Planners and local communities will increasingly deal with tribes on water rights Issues.

The big picture challenge with zoning on tribal lands is coordination with neighboring jurisdictions and states for clear lines of communication and authority and recognition for an interest in regulating lands as a sovereign right. In practice, this will certainly vary across the nation depending on the relationship of tribal reservations with their local jurisdictions and states, but also their capacity to manage the regulation. Given the history of land disenfranchisement throughout the last three centuries, the call to action for planners is to meet the tribes where they are at, aid when appropriate, and include them in the discussions of land regulations.

This issue of Zoning Practice examines how federal tribal law affects the application of zoning to tribal lands. It provides a distilled history of tribal land management and disenfranchisement and explores how some tribal authorities use land-use and development regulations to advance tribal objectives.


Page Count
Date Published
Nov. 1, 2023
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American Planning Association

About the Authors

Margo Hill

John Tovey, AICP
John David Tovey III “J.D.” AICP, Deputy Executive Director, is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton Oregon. Mr. Tovey is a proud Cayuse and Joseph Band Nez Perce. He has an undergraduate in Landscape Architecture from the University of Idaho, a Master of Urban Planning and Certificate of Urban Design from University of Washington and will soon be defending his dissertation for PhD in Urban Design & Planning, also from the University of Washington, with a research focus of tribal planning, land tenure and knowledge transference. He has more than 20 years of professional experience in large scale development projects, from conceptualization, design development, permitting and construction. For 9.5 years, he served as the CTUIR Tribal Planning Director and managed managed Kayak Public Transit, the largest transit agency in Eastern Oregon, which provides ~100,000 rides a year and serves 18 communities, and 4 counties in northeast Oregon and southwest Washington. In October 2023, he moved into a new role at CTUIR as the new Deputy Executive Director, overseeing several departments. Mr. Tovey has extensive experience in comprehensive planning, capital improvements development, community development, project management, and change management in complex organizational systems.