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Zoning: What Is It?

Zoning is a legal term that many people have heard but may not know the definition of. This process allows communities to control future development, protect public health and safety, and conserve natural resources. It can be a complex topic, but we’ll try to break it down for you in this blog post. Stay tuned!

Are zoning codes legally binding?

These codes are a set of regulations that dictate how land can be used within a municipality. They are typically created by local governments to control development and protect the character of a community. They are legally binding and must be followed by developers, property owners, and residents. Violations of zoning codes can result in fines or other penalties.


What Is Zoning?

It is a kind of urban planning in which a municipality or other level of government divides property into zones, each of which has its own set of rules for new construction that differs from the others. Zones are used to separate buildings or portions of buildings. They may be defined for a particular purpose (such as residential), may combine several compatible operations, or in the case of form-based zoning, the varied rules could regulate density, size, and shape of permitted structures regardless of use.

A zoning map depicts the boundaries of each zone, while a development’s planning permits are determined by its planning rules. It may distinguish various explicit and conditional uses of land. It may define the maximum area and size of lots that land can be divided into or the shape and scale of buildings that can be built upon it. These standards are intended to assist in the planning of city growth and development.

Zoning in the United States:

Under the police power rights, state governments may have control over private real property. With this authority, specific laws and rules restricting the locations where particular sorts of business may be done have long been enacted. In 1904, Los Angeles became the United States’ first city to impose land-use limitations on a portion of its territory. In 1916, New York City became the first municipality in the country to impose city-wide rules.

The Supreme Court confirmed the legality of laws in the 1926 case Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co. In the United States, Houston is unique in that it has no zoning rules. Instead, land use is managed by various means.

It becomes more powerful as it spreads across new locations and is used in bigger political and territorial jurisdictions. Next, regional zoning was implemented to improve the geographic size of areas subject to zoning regulations. The biggest distinction between urban one and regional one is that “regional areas are seldom linked to arbitrary political boundaries.” 

Rural areas, in addition to rural locations, were covered under this type of zoning. This was at odds with the idea that the concept was a consequence of population density. Finally, once again, it was redrawn along political boundaries, but only for the purpose of administrative convenience.

Types of Zoning in the United States:

The regulations have changed over time as urban planning concepts have evolved, legal restrictions have fluctuated, and political priorities have altered. The four major types of zoning are Euclidean, Performance, Incentive, and form-based.


The term comes from the type of code used in the town of Euclid, Ohio, and approved by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. In the United States, Eucldean regulations are most common. The segregation of land uses into defined geographic districts and dimensional standards, which limit development activity within each type of district, is characteristic of Euclidean zoning. The advantages of Euclidean code include simplicity, long-standing legal precedent, and familiarity. While it is acknowledged that Euclidean code has certain benefits, such as relative efficacy, ease of implementation, and long-established legal precedent, it has also been criticized for its lack of flexibility and institutionalization of now-outmoded planning theory.


Performance zoning is a planning method in which proposed development projects are evaluated using performance-based or goal-oriented criteria. The goal of performance zoning is to provide flexibility, rationality, transparency, and accountability in place of the Euclidean method’s arbitrariness while still protecting the environment. Difficulties included a requirement for a high level of discretionary activity on the part of the supervising authority. Performance zoning has not been widely adopted in the USA.


Incentive zoning, which was first used in Chicago and New York City, is a reward-based planning method intended to encourage development that meets established citywide growth objectives. The technique typically sets a basic level of restrictions and a reward scale to encourage developers to implement the necessary development criteria. Incentive zoning provides a lot of freedom, but it may be tough to manage.


Form-based codes give architects and developers significantly more leeway than Euclidean codes in terms of building uses and form. The form-based zoning system regulates not the kind of development, but rather the form that it may take. Form-based zoning in a densely populated area, for example, may demand a low setback, high density, and pedestrian access. FBCs are intended to respond immediately to the physical structure of a neighborhood in order to produce more walkable and adapting places.

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