2016 marks the 100th anniversary of New York City adopting its zoning code; a first in the nation. The 1916 Zoning Resolution was passed in response to the 42-story Equitable Building in Lower Manhattan, which swallowed up every available inch on the lot and towered above everything else in the neighborhood. The regulations set specifications for new constructions such as height restrictions, minimum room sizes, and set-back distances. These guidelines helped to shape the city’s smart and healthy future growth. The practice was soon adopted and emulated by other forward-thinking municipalities.
Since New York City lead the way in 1916, most communities have adopted zoning or other land-use regulations. The most notable exception is Houston, Texas, which has had zoning regulations rejected by voters in 1948, 1964, and 1993. The sprawling city is now experiencing many troubles, including a case similar to the construction of the Equitable Building.
What are Zoning Regulations?
Zoning requirements vary from community to community, but most codes are comprised of two basic parts. The first is the zoning map. This visualizes the different zoning districts within a municipality as well as land uses for future developments.
The second part is the accompanying text. This describes development standards, such as height requirements. It also outlines different approval procedures or permits that may be needed to move ahead with a project.
Despite the obvious benefits, zoning regulations have become increasingly complex and sometimes difficult for property owners to understand and interpret. It is not uncommon to encounter a zoning code with 200-300 pages of dense text and charts. The evolution of regulations to address the changing concerns of the community is necessary, but can often lead to the zoning code becoming indecipherable. This increasing complexity is making it more difficult for residents to understand their city’s plan for the future and how it will affect their property or neighborhood.
“To understand zoning, you have to have a law degree, it’s so convoluted and so dense,” said Mike Ernst, director of planning at the Municipal Art Society of New York, in a New York Times article. “The whole process of how buildings get built these days is so confusing and opaque to people. There really should be more transparency, so people can have an understanding of what the future holds for their city.”
The Technology Gap
Though the content of zoning codes has changed dramatically over the past 100 years, how these regulations are communicated to the public has not. Today, just like it was back in 1916, many municipalities’ zoning codes are simply static documents. Municipalities are also posting these online as a PDF, which is only slightly better than not posting online. Some communities have added a zoning layer to their GIS map portal even though there is no connection back to the regulating text. While these are good first steps, they do little to fully communicate the full scope of zoning regulations.
“Answering the procedural questions related to zoning and planning provides an important layer of transparency. More layers of transparency come into the picture when cities also release maps that visualize how zoning works,” wrote Alisha Green in an article for the Sunlight Foundation.
Zoning regulations are only effective for fostering economic development and positive growth when they are easily accessible and readily understood. Residents should be able to go to a single online source to find out what they can do with their property. Potential business owners should be able to easily find out where they can locate a business in the community. And every property owner should be kept up-to-date on potential development projects as they move through the review process. Unfortunately, many municipalities are not currently operating with this level of transparency.
This is unacceptable in a day and age when an estimated 2.16 billion people own smartphones.
ZoningHub is the online zoning solution. ZoningHub gives municipalities, of any size, the ability to post their zoning code online, making it accessible by anyone at any time. The Interactive Zoning Map allows any resident, developer, or potential investor to find the information they need, when they need it, and in a way that is easily understood. Complete with definitions and diagrams, ZoningHub explains the municipality’s zoning regulations and answers development questions without the need for phone calls or trips to City Hall. When a local government operates in such a transparent and informative way, it boosts civic engagement, business development, and economic growth.
Photo: Manhattan skyline with Central Park in New York City from 123rf.com