Free Enterprise

What is Zoning?

Zoning is the mother lode of city rules. Going far beyond describing that factories are not allowed in the middle of neighborhoods, zoning laws contain a striking level of regulatory detail that often goes on for hundreds of pages.

Resembling a legalistic HOA contract, many zoning laws outline in granular detail requirements such as the following:

  • How big your front, side, and backyard must be
  • The length of any driveways
  • The look and type of trees and other landscaping
  • How big your house has to be

Beyond these home requirements, zoning laws also determine what happens if you wish  to build a backyard cottage for the purpose of renting it out for $1,000 per month. If you are lucky enough that the zoning actually allows for it and that the regulations aren’t too strict, you can build the cottage. If the zoning doesn’t allow for it, your aspirations for a rental cottage are thwarted, impacting both your financial plans and a renter’s access to an affordable place to live.

Zoning Districts

Moving beyond individual properties, zoning laws also categorize entire cities into distinct “zoning districts,” each reserved for specific activities. For example, “Residential Zone R6” may allow for smaller homes on smaller lots, while the other seven residential zones require homes to be built on larger lots. “Industrial Zone 1” might allow for big factories, while “Commercial Zone C3” allows for small-scale establishments like restaurants, corner stores, and bakeries.

While some of this separation is good, such as keeping loud factories out of quiet neighborhoods, keeping things like small corner stores and bakeries from all residential neighborhoods is an inconvenience for residents that hurts the local economy.

Different Names for the Same Thing?

All cities do not use the same zoning district names, the same amount of districts, or allow for the same land uses in similar zones. Basically, every city has adopted its own custom zoning. This makes shopping for real estate or learning about zoning very difficult. That is the complicated reality of zoning laws in America.

Is Your Business Idea on the List?

Another tedious aspect of zoning laws are “permitted use lists”. These lists exist for every zoning district in a city and go beyond general descriptions of what someone is and isn’t allowed to do. For example, a permitted use list will show that you cannot cut someone’s hair in this zone — because this zone is for living only. You can construct a house for a car, but not a house for grandma. An escape room is OK here, but not a magician’s shop. And if your business idea happens to not be on the list of permitted uses, it’s prohibited!

How Did We Get Here?

Having roots in California and New York City in the 1910s, the concept of zoning came to Utah and spread across America in the 1920s as states passed laws that gave cities and counties the authority to zone.

The adoption of zoning was fairly rapid, but many cities and counties still resisted it for many decades. The reason? Mainly out of a desire to provide residents with the freedom to decide what they wanted for their own properties. 

In fact, some jurisdictions continue to reject zoning to this day, mostly in small counties and towns scattered across the United States, but also in Houston, Texas — America’s fourth largest city.

Can Zoning Laws Change?

Like any law, local zoning can indeed change. Changes require a vote from the local planning commission and city council. While this process may seem daunting, it’s important to note that zoning laws in cities have evolved significantly over time. Across Utah and the country, cities are increasingly moving to refine zoning regulations, aiming to give property owners more freedom and flexibility. Engaging with your city council representative to express your concerns and aspirations is a direct way to influence these recent developments.