Preservation ABCs: Z is for Zoning

Preservation ABCs is a series that will work its way from A to Z, bringing words into conversation that are relevant to historic preservation, whether it’s an idea, feature or vocabulary term. The idea is to help you see preservation everywhere you look and wherever you go. Enjoy! See previous letters.

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Z is for Zoning

Alexandria, VA zoning. Click image and zoom in to read the map.

Zoning is a land use control and planning tool that dictates the types of buildings and their uses for a defined area. Elements under zoning control can include setback, height, density, appearance, parking, etc). There are pros and cons to zoning, as well as different types. All of this could be an entire book or an entire class, so let’s go over just a few pieces. 

A (Very Brief) History: In the late 19th century and early 20th century, American cities passed laws that governed aspects such as height and use of buildings. New York City adopted the first citywide zoning ordinance that identified residential, commercial, and unrestricted areas. The basic form for zoning began with the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (1924/6) and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act (1926/8), both published by the U.S. Department of Commerce.  In 1926, the Supreme Court upheld that zoning was constitutional in the case Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Company (272 U.S. 365). Here the village prohibited industrial development that could change the character of the village. The parcel of land had already been divided into parcels of land with height and density requirements, which is why industry could not be developed.

There is more than one type of zoning, and how zoning is applied varies across the United States and the world. The important point to know is this: Zoning and historic preservation can be good friends or foes.

How are they linked? A zoning plan divides an areas into different sections/zones. A zoning overlay is often a historic preservation district overlay that can cover more than one zone. In other words, the residential, commercial, and  industrial zones might all have some parts in the historic district, which is the historic preservation overlay.

How can they be friends or foes? Zoning can help historic preservation by aiding in controlling and directing growth to the appropriate areas. This has the benefit of protecting density and character of an area. Consider the Urban Growth Boundary of Portland, OR. However, zoning and preservation can interfere with one another. Zoning might restrict the rehabilitation of a building. In that case, zoning would need to be revisited for revisions or amendments or a special permit (conditional use) requested.

A lack of zoning will can harm historic preservation. Perhaps the National Register Historic District has not been expanded, therefore the historic district overlay not expanded. (Districts that were listed decades ago are often smaller than districts we would list today.) Inappropriate development could be  a threat because retail/commercial could be allowed in an area where it shouldn’t be. Consider a Dollar General built within an eligible historic district, simply because zoning has not been revisited in decades.

Despite changes that might be required, having a zoning ordinance is a better place to start than no zoning ordinance. If your community does not have zoning, it is a necessity. It is easier and better to be proactive than reactive. Check your town’s zoning districts, historic districts, and ask preservationists (check with your State Historic Preservation Office) if the districts could be increased). And preservation planners, feel free to add advice in the comments.

An excellent, easy-to-understand booklet from the NPS about Historic Preservation and Zoning. Alexandria, VA map found here.

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And just like that, we’ve made it all the way from A to Z. Thanks for following along with this series. If there are letters that you would change, please share. 

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One thought on “Preservation ABCs: Z is for Zoning

  1. Ken - the OldHouseGuy says:

    Many homeowners are fearful of being included in a historic district but studies show that these homes are about 20% higher that those out of a district. In these districts you are getting the security of a not perfect – but a better chance the neighborhood you bought into will remain the same.

    I have attended many zoning board meetings and the most frustrating thing is that you are not permitted to make statements. You may have the most valid point to make but you will be stopped from expressing it and told you can only ask questions.

    Does anyone know the reason for this and how it started?

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