Zoning Practice — June 2011

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by Lane Kendig, author of the June 2011 Zoning Practice article "One-District Zoning."

Question from Roy Pachecano, Columbia University:

How can one-district zoning techniques be used for rural and semi-rural (i.e., small towns that exhibit a characteristic of "rural-urbanism") whose municipalities never had a land use plan to begin with? Many of these small towns are playing catch up — starting from scratch — creating comprehensive plans during a century of growth when only farming, coal, oil, and gas exploration dictated land use.

Answer from author Lane Kendig:

The question of how to apply one district zoning to small rural places with a rural-urbanism is dependent on what type of community they are. It is fairly straight forward for the towns of New England and Pennsylvania, where the town has a fixed boundary and there is no unincorporated surrounding land. For incorporated and unincorporated small rural places there are additional challenges.

The town can in effect create an ultimate growth plan and is no threat from the actions of its neighbors interfering with its growth. Because they can think about an ultimate plan, they can decide to be rural in community character selecting to have a natural, agriculture, or countryside character (see Community Character — countryside is exurban residential rural character). With either the natural or agricultural character, the vast majority of the town would in one-district zoning be controlled by a very low density cluster option. The cluster option would require 90 percent open space, have densities in the 1 unit per 20 acre range as a starting point, and have a slight density bonus for more open space. Assuming that there are one or more rural places, crossroads, or hamlets within the town, there will need to be a more intense cluster option with a much lower open space starting point for clustering. So cluster open space might range from 45 percent up with open space to surround the crossroads or hamlet. A crucial issue will be whether sewer can be provided using either private land treatment or a public system as this will define the density ranges possible. Commercial would be limited for crossroads to a very small set of parcels either at the crossroads or adjoining any existing commercial. For a town wishing an estate character, the open spaces would decline and densities increase, but the one-district code would operate the same general way.

For small incorporated communities surrounded by unincorporated areas the problem is quite different. Whatever character the community wishes can be threatened by the zoning of the county. A rural community must have a sharp edge and be surrounded by rural land. Cooperation with the county is essential. There needs to be true rural zoning maintained for several miles around an incorporated area. If the community wants to be rural and have regulations similar to those discussed above, it can never happen if the county zoning allows one to 10 acre lots as far too many counties do. Anything built under those regulations will destroy the rural character by introducing estate character and destroying the community's sharp edge. Similarly another municipality could grow into close proximity eliminating the rural character. There is one exception to this, townships that are incorporated as villages as permitted in some midwestern states and thus have a land area large enough to establish a unique character.

Counties could attempt to use one district zoning concepts to protect unincorporated places as small freestanding communities surrounded by a rural land. The counties would have a rural or agricultural district which uses the concepts of a single district zoning to protect rural character, but they would have other zoning districts. The regulations would be similar to the town regulations discussed above. Over time the county would have to maintain an area of 9 to 15 square miles surrounding the unincorporated place.

A second part of the question seemed to suggest that the fact that these places had no history of planning. The fact that these places have not had comprehensive plans is perhaps a plus. They have not acquired the standard way of thinking about planning. If they start planning for the character of their community, they will not have to unlearn the traditional land use and density approach that most plans have followed. They will also have to plan to be freestanding rural communities and control their edges and the rural surrounding land. The last plus is if they plan to implement with a one-district code the problem of mapping different districts will not have to be faced.

Question from Michelle Rentzsch, AICP, Crystal Lake, Illinois:

In this month's Zoning Practice, Lane Kendig states that Crystal Lake, Illinois, has 25 zoning districts. This error should be corrected. Our community has 13 zoning districts.

Answer from author Lane Kendig:

Several years ago, my firm was a consultant to Crystal Lake. At that time they had 25 zoning districts, including, as I recall, some special PUD districts. We recommended that they reduce the number of districts. I am delighted that Crystal Lake took at least one of our recommendations.

The 99 cited for Milwaukee was also taken from work done there, and it was reduced to around 30-something pursuant to our work. Indian Creek has also reduced its number of zoning districts as has Zackary.

For both Milwaukee and Crystal Lake more reductions could have been achieved. I have used the numbers to illustrate that many older codes have way too many districts.