Myth vs. Fact: Is the Zoning Update Out of Control? 2

Myth: The zoning update has exceeded its scope.

Fact: The Zoning Update was mandated by the Comprehensive Plan, which sets out a very broad scope. According to the Comp Plan, “the Zoning Regulations need substantial revision and reorganization, ranging from new definitions to updated development and design standards, and even new zones.” Nevertheless, when the process started in 2007, a few stakeholders—including at least one member of the Zoning Commission at the time—cautioned us that the process should be a “review,” and not necessarily a “rewrite.” OP took that mandate seriously, and began the process by reviewing the current code and identifying specific problems that we needed to address. Was the code clear about how to measure the height of buildings, or could people game the system to get taller buildings than was intended? How did treating nonconforming courts and sideyards as part of “building area” create unintended incentives to fill in those narrow spaces? These are the types of very technical questions that we set out to answer.

As we looked at the code more and more, we found bigger, structural problems that few people anticipated discussing. Are the chapters well organized? Do the names of zones have any logical connection to how a user would want to find information about them? Should a modern code really be using terms like “ice sales” and “telegraph office” to regulate land use, and if not, what should we do instead?

While we’ve had to ask some difficult questions and have struggled with what should stay and what should go, we think the proposed draft strikes a balance.  We have taken a more flexible approach to organization – the new layout should make it easier for users to navigate the code.  However, we didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and not everything is changing — there are lots of good regulations in the existing zoning code, that have shaped the city in positive ways for the last five decades. We’re not proposing to change those things that are working. In fact, we estimate that roughly 90 percent of the zoning code’s substance won’t change at all. So, what we’re saying is that you might find familiar requirements but in a new way or a new location. 

We hope that the strategies we’re employing to reorganize the code, use more modern terms to define land uses, and make it easier to find information will make the zoning code work better for everyone. Some of these strategies may go farther than some of us expected. But the Comp Plan told us to think big, and we’re willing to take that on. Are you?


  1. At a public meeting in July 2007, former Commissioner Parsons said to OP: “I’m concerned with a sentence in your report that says ‘all of this leads us to the conclusion that regardless of whether the policies found in the document change at all, a fundamental reorganization or rewrite is necessary; because I did not hear that from our roundtable. Of course, I’ve been at this a while so I’m used to what I see. But I don’t see that we should be concluding at this point that a fundamental reorganization and total rewrite of these regulations is necessary and this conclusion at this early date seems premature to me.”

    OP agreed that the conclusion could be seen as “premature” at that early stage in the process; as we came to identify more and more problems with the basic organization, it became apparent that a more significant undertaking was necessary.

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