Zoning ordinances are laws developed by local governments that regulate how a piece of property can be used. Nearly every developed country in the world has some form of zoning regulation, though the scope and purpose of these laws may differ depending on the area. It is important to understand the impact local zoning laws can have on your property, including measures designed to protect your rights, and those that may limit your options for using a piece of land.
New York City was the first municipality in the U.S. to institute a system of zoning laws. Developed in 1916, zoning laws were first written in response to the construction of a new skyscraper on Broadway called the Equitable Building. After the building was complete, it stretched across the entire area of the property, and was situated tightly against adjacent buildings. Local residents complained that their windows, views, and sunlight were blocked. To prevent this type of situation, New York set zoning standards in place to establish land use, property line setbacks, and a number of other factors. These laws began the standard for zoning in the U.S..
There are many factors that support the implementation of zoning standards. The primary purpose of zoning is to protect the rights of residents, land owners, and the general public. To accomplish this, most zoning laws are aimed at separating various land use activities from one another. For example, most zoning codes limit industrial and commercial land use in residential areas. This helps protect residents from increased traffic, noise, and air pollution while keeping the neighborhood's sense of character and community.
The most common type of zoning system in the U.S. is known as Euclidian zoning. This system segregates blocks of land according to their permitted uses. Typically, land use is characterized as residential, commercial, industrial, or mixed use. Euclidian standards may also address issues such as the size and height of buildings, setbacks, and lot coverage. Most areas will allow some projects to by-pass zoning standards using a tool known as a "variance." A zoning variance is usually placed before a review board or community representatives for voting or review.
Performance zoning is much more flexible than traditional Euclidian standards. Under a performance system, individual projects are reviewed based on their location and how they are expected to impact the local community. Zones are less structured, and more mixed-use areas are created. Many areas that rely on this system use a points-based standard, where negative community impacts must be offset by positive ones. For example, a developer may be required to fund some public transportation options to mitigate increased traffic created by a new project.
Incentive-based zoning systems are an important tool in urban planning and renewal. Under these systems, municipalities will grant zoning "rewards" to developers who help the city meet its development goals. For example, a builder who is renovating abandoned buildings may be permitted a number of variances on the project, such as increased building height or size. This type of system often requires multi-family residential developers to produce a certain number of low-income units for every high-dollar condo that is built.
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