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Don't Use The 'Z' Word

What's so bad about Zoning? Planner and attorney Edward McMahon separates the myths from the facts. At its best, zoning can help strike the elusive balance between quality of life and economic vitality.
November 14, 2001, 12am PST | Edward McMahon
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Edward McMahon"Whatever you do, don't use the 'Z' word." I sometimes get this advice before speaking to groups in small towns and rural areas throughout America.

Why do so many people still get so upset whenever zoning is proposed in a previously unzoned municipality or county, or whenever a community wants to strengthen its zoning ordinance?

In my experience, the most common objection to zoning is a perceived loss of control. Zoning opponents say "if you own a piece of land, you should be able to do what you want with it." Related to this is a pervasive fear that regulation of any kind will reduce property values. Overcoming these objections is not easy, but it can be done, particularly if you separate the facts from the myths.

Myth #1 -- Zoning is un-American.

Fact: A county commissioner from a western North Carolina county once told me how he was called a Communist at a public hearing on a proposed zoning ordinance. He replied that while he was a Methodist, he was certainly no Communist.

Zoning disputes often inspire inflated rhetoric. Perhaps this is because zoning does mean that the interests of individual property owners must sometimes yield to the interests of the public. But this is as American as baseball or apple pie. In fact, for more than 150 years, our courts have consistently held that the Constitution allows for the public regulation of private land.

To understand this, consider the old principle of law that says "your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins." This principle applies to real estate as well. It means that with rights come responsibilities. Even political philosopher John Locke held as a basic assumption that "free men would never exercise their rights without recognizing the obligations that the exercise of those rights implied."

Myth #2 -- Sparsely populated rural areas don't need to control uses of land.

Fact: It is true that some places grow much faster than other places, but change is inevitable every place in America. Technology, immigration, new roads, the global economy, and many other factors are changing communities whether they are prepared for it or not. There are really only two kinds of change in the world today: managed change and unmanaged change.

Land use planning is one way to mitigate and manage change. Rural communities that want to preserve the status quo have no real choice except to plan. The old-timers who most abhor change are often the first to realize that without sensible land use controls, everything they love about a place will ultimately disappear.

Myth #3 -- Land use controls will increase taxes and reduce property values.

Fact: It is sprawl -- not zoning -- that increases taxes. Haphazard, inefficient land uses require taxpayers to pay more and more for roads, sewers, schools, utilities, and other public infrastructure. As for property values, every day hundreds of decisions are made by public bodies that affect someone's property values; however, these decisions are just as likely to increase the value of property as to diminish it.

Sensible land use controls almost always enhance rather than diminish property values. If you don't believe this, visit any historic district and compare property values in the district to property values outside the district. On the other hand, try selling a home next to an asphalt plant, junk yard, or other noxious use. Nationally known real estate appraiser, Don Rypkema says, "sensible land use controls are central to economic competitiveness in the 21st century."

Myth #4 -- Planning is a bad idea.

Fact: The truth is virtually every successful individual, organization, corporation, or community plans for the future. Failing to plan simply means planning to fail. Try imagining a company that didn't have a business plan. They would have a hard time attracting any investors and they would be at a huge disadvantage in the competitive marketplace. The same is true of communities. A comprehensive plan is like a blueprint. It allows a community to define and accomplish its objectives. Even the Bible recognizes the importance of planning. As the book of Proverbs says, "Without vision, the people will perish."

Planning provides the essential bedrock on which zoning should be founded. In fact, communities that engage in zoning in isolation from planning are setting themselves up for failure -- as their zoning regulations will often appear arbitrary and without any consistent, or long-range, purpose.


Perhaps the most important reason why zoning has flourished, despite its imperfections, is that it gives citizens a voice in local government. Without zoning, citizens have no voice when out-of-town corporations or big developers run roughshod over local values and traditions. It also makes land use decisions public. This is important because the more a community understands how decisions are made, the better future decisions will be.

Zoning is really about balance. At its best, zoning can help strike the elusive balance between quality of life and economic vitality.

Edward McMahon is a land use planner, attorney, and Vice-President of The Conservation Fund. He is former president of Scenic America, a national non-profit organization devoted to protecting America's scenic landscapes. The above is excerpted from a longer article, "What's So Bad About Zoning?" appearing in the current Fall issue of the Planning Commissioners Journal. For information about the full article, go to:

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