What is Zoning

Zoning is dividing land into districts imposed by municipalities with distinct land use and density characteristics such as single-family, multi-family, commercial, industrial, etc. Cities codify zoning within their municipal Zoning Ordinance or Unified Development Code. Zoning is often discretionary is based on the city’s Comprehensive Plan.


What is a Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance?

Most cities have a Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, a codified set of regulations that define each zoning district’s dimensional and site standards. Dimensional standards regulate lot sizes, setbacks, building heights, floor area ratios, etc., for each zoning district. Site standards define the landscape, tree mitigation, parking, buffer, detention ponds, and other site requirements. 

Major sections of a Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance include:

  1. Definitions
  2. Zoning Districts and Uses
  3. Zoning District Dimensional Standards
  4. Site Development Standards
  5. Special Districts
  6. Administration


Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (SZEA)

Initially adopted in 1921, the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act establishes how states delegate authority to local municipalities to regulate land, create zoning districts, appoint boards and commissions, and establish and enforce regulations. Revised in 1926, the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act had nine sections that included:

Section 1: Grant of Power empowered the legislative body of cities and incorporated villages to regulate building height, maximum building stories, maximum lot coverage, yard sizes, courts, and other open spaces, population density, and the location of land use. 

Section 2: Districts allows for the division of a municipality by a local legislative body into districts. It may regulate and restrict the erection, construction, reconstruction, alteration, repair, or use of buildings, structures, or land. The regulations are required to be uniform for each class or building throughout each district. 

Section 3: Purpose in View states that such regulations in sections one and two must comply with the comprehensive plan. 

Section 4: Method of Procedure states that municipalities shall provide measures to have regulations, restrictions, and boundaries of zoning districts determined, established, enforced, or amended. All should be done so through a public hearing process that allows citizens and stakeholders to be heard. 

Section 5: Changes states that regulations, restrictions, and boundaries may be amended, supplemented, changed, modified, or repealed. It also provides processes for protests of regulations or restrictions.   

Section 6: Zoning Commission covers the appointment of a zoning commission by a local legislative body.

Section 7: Board of Adjustments calls for the appointment of a board of adjustments by a local legislative body.

Section 8: Enforcement and Remedies allow local legislation to enforce violations of ordinances or regulations.

Section 9: Conflict with Other Laws establishes whether conflicts of local laws prevail versus laws within the act and vice versa. 

A Standard State Zoning Enabling Act – 1926.pdf


Purpose of Zoning

Zoning aims to protect public health, safety, and welfare. It serves as a regulatory framework in accordance with the municipality’s comprehensive plan. Zoning is designed to prevent overcrowding of land, increase safety, reduce street congestion, and address transportation, utilities, parks, school, and public facilities or infrastructure requirements.


Role of City Government

Local municipalities have either a Planning and Zoning Department or a Community Development Department that handles their zoning cases. It is the role of staff to review zoning requests for compliance with existing ordinances and comprehensive plan. 

For example, if a developer is interested in building apartments on a parcel of land that is currently zoned single-family, they would submit an application to the municipality requesting a zoning change to multi-family. City staff will make a determination based on the existing zoning of surrounding development and the future land use recommendations within the comprehensive plan. The request will go before the Planning and Zoning Commission and then to City Council for approval. 

Zoning requests can be approved or denied by the Commission and Council. It varies based on request and the dynamics surrounding the decision.

Types of Zoning

Below are brief definitions of various zoning types in alphabetical order. 


Conditional Zoning regulates permitted land uses within zoning districts and the land-use-specific development requirements for approval. 

Contract Zoning is when a specified agreement is made with a city for zoning approval. 

Cluster Zoning is the practice of concentrating development where it is wanted and limiting it in areas where it is not. Cluster zoning creates more high-density development while protecting and preserving open space.

Cumulative Zoning allows less intense uses in higher-intensity areas. For example, commercial land uses would be allowed in areas zoned industrial. 

Downzoning occurs when less intensive zoning is approved for an area previously zoned for denser development. For example, an area previously zoned multi-family is rezoned as single-family land use. 

Euclidean Zoning separates land uses into zones such as residential, retail, commercial, and industrial.  

Exclusionary Zoning restricts the types of homes permitted in a particular neighborhood (e.g., Sunnyvale, Texas).

Inclusionary Zoning, developed in response to exclusionary zoning, calls for the development of affordable homes in a given area. 

Performance Zoning regulates zoning based on buildings’ size, form, appearance, and placement rather than land use.

Spot Zoning is when zoning is approved for an area that is different from the parcels in the immediate area. 

Transect Zoning orders zoning districts based on intensity from natural and rural areas to suburban and urban zones. 

Upzoning is the opposite of downzoning, where zoning is changed to a denser development pattern. 

Fredrick Douglass

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