BY TAYLOR BENNETT, POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB
“We can’t change that…. Can we?”
It’s a phrase I hear often about many different topics, but I hear it especially often about zoning.
Back to Basics
As I mentioned in Part 1 of the Citizen’s Guide to Zoning (Click here to see Part 1!), zoning is a set of local ordinances that define that locality’s plan for how to utilize different pieces of its land – our collective agreement as citizens about how we’re going to share space with one another. It has three primary purposes: to keep citizens safe, to improve the lived experiences of citizens, and to improve local economies. Check out this short video if you still feel in the dark.
Who Makes the Rules?
In each city, town, or county, the specific person who makes the zoning ordinances varies. In some communities a City Planner will do the job, in others, it’s the City or County Manager, the Attorney on staff, or even a third-party organization providing technical support to communities. This most often happens in communities that do not have the technical expertise on staff. Talking with the person who makes the zoning ordinances is often the best place to start if you have questions about zoning in your community.
Changing the Rules
Like all local ordinances, zoning ordinances can and should change over time. They need to adjust to meet the changing needs of citizens.
Members of the community play an important role in making those changes in two key ways:
1.Requesting a Variance
One of the requirements for establishing zoning ordinances is that a local government also needs to set up a way for citizens to request variances from zoning laws. This is usually done through a Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) and involves the citizen making an application to that board for special consideration.
Say that an individual lives in a neighborhood where driveways can only be 8 feet wide. However, this individual uses a wheelchair and needs extra driveway width to accommodate. A BZA may grant them a variance to build a wider driveway in order to meet their unique needs.
Variances are useful in cases where zoning ordinances are meeting most of the needs that citizens have, but special circumstances or unique needs require flexibility. If enough people ask for the same type of variance, local government staff may be prompted to change the related law.
2. Change the Ordinance
Just like all ordinances, zoning ordinances are drafted, read, and passed through the City Council or County Commission. By talking with city or county staff, citizens can explain why the zoning ordinance should be changed. Talking to the Mayor and City Council representatives or County Commissioners, and speaking out during a city council meeting can encourage them to pass the new ordinance.
Zoning doesn’t help communities in every circumstance, but as we talked about in Part 1 of this Citizen’s Guide to Zoning (Click here to see Part 1!), there are challenges that – when properly implemented – zoning can help to address. The important thing to remember is that, just like all laws, zoning ordinances are meant to serve the citizens of their community. And just like all laws, citizens can work to change them.