Land Use and Zoning


Zoning regulates development patterns including the density, construction, alteration, and use of buildings, structures, or land.

A community's zoning ordinance is the principal legal tool available for the implementation of its comprehensive plan and the definition of the community's land use policies.

The man-made environment consists of different types of land use such as:

  • Commercial
  • Industrial
  • Residential
  • Recreational
  • Open space

The types of uses listed all take place in areas of differing land use densities. Central city areas, particularly along the East Coast, for example, contain higher densities of development than rural areas, small towns, or newer western communities. In terms of residential uses, residential density is measured by the number of dwelling units per land area (dwelling units per acre) and population density is measured by people per square mile of land area (people per square mile).

Some types of land uses are:

  • Single-family (1-4 unit) residential
  • Multi-family residential
  • Office
  • Commercial
  • Light industrial
  • Heavy Industrial
  • Institutional (e.g., hospital, city hall)
  • Recreational
  • Agricultural
  • Open space

A proposed project might not conform with existing zoning but might be consistent with the community’s general development plans and policies. Such projects may require either a change in the zoning or a special permit through an appeals process. The need for a change in the zoning should not, by itself, be interpreted as an adverse environmental effect. However, failure to thoroughly secure the municipality’s approval for appropriate land will prevent development from proceeding.

When assessing the impact of the project, consider the following issues:

  • Land Use Compatibility—Certain types of land uses may be incompatible with one another. For example, it may be incompatible to locate a new housing development in a newly industrialized area. The potential noise, odors, truck traffic, air pollution, and scale of industrial development are often incompatible with housing and can have an adverse effect on residential development. Each of these adverse impacts could act as environmental injustices for neighboring communities. Land uses that are known to be incompatible are often separated to minimize or prevent adverse effects.
  • Urban Impact—Certain types of federally assisted activities can have an adverse impact on the economic viability of a city’s central business district. HUD-funded infrastructure improvements made at the edge of an urbanized area (e.g., sewer and water lines) may serve to induce development in undeveloped portions of a community, thus creating sprawl with resulting environmental and social costs.
  • Smart Growth—The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines smart growth as a range of development and conservation strategies that help protect our health and natural environment and make our communities more attractive, economically stronger, and more socially diverse. These strategies work to preserve natural lands and critical environmental areas, protect water and air quality, and reuse developed land. Smart growth policies help communities mitigate and adapt to climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in developments and increasing community resilience to the effects of climate change. In some situations, the impacts of induced development may be highly desirable. The impacts of induced development to achieve managed growth through the efficient use of available and publicly funded infrastructure are consistent with smart growth objectives. HUD-funded infrastructure improvements made in the city center may stimulate private investment and thereby help redevelop a lagging section of a community. These improvements can also help communities remedy historical environmental injustices by encouraging investment in underfunded low- and moderate-income or minority communities.

Important Considerations

  1. What is the current zoning classification of the project location?
  2. Does the proposed project comply with existing zoning regulations? If not, does the proposal require a zoning variance?
  3. What is the existing land use at the project location?
  4. How does the project relate to the existing land uses of the adjacent and surrounding properties?
  5. Will the location of the proposed project contribute to urban sprawl? If so, are there alternative location options for the proposed project that align with smart growth objectives?
  6. Will the location place the proposed project at an increase environmental risk compared to the community as a whole?

Analysis Techniques

When a zoning ordinance applies, as an early planning process, the environmental assessment should consider whether the proposed activity is likely to be able to achieve zoning conformity or obtain a variance from the local government. Where a community does not have a zoning ordinance, the analysis should still consider whether the project aligns with the community’s planning documents.

Analyze the existing project plans. If the proposal involves a new community facility, such as a new sewer line, consider the following questions:

  • What is the service capacity of the new facility?
  • How much new development will likely occur due to the new facilities?
  • Can the community accommodate this new growth, in terms of the increased costs of delivering community services?
  • Will this growth provide increased housing opportunities for low- and moderate- income or minority persons?
  • Does this new facility pose a potential risk to low- and moderate- income or minority persons or communities, including resources used by them? Consider the potential impacts of extreme weather events with increased severity due to climate change over the coming 30-year period.

Consult data sources to establish existing land use and trends in development. These may include:

  • Land Use and Zoning Data—shows general land use patterns in the community. Review how land use has changed in recent years prior to the current proposal.
  • Aerial Photos—can show areas with large vacant land tracts and areas where new development is happening.
  • Public Infrastructure Plans—help identify likely locations where new growth will occur and locations where new highways and/or sewer and water lines are planned.
  • Building Permit Records—indicate where new development or rehab activity is occurring.
  • Property Ownership and Title Transfer Data— where available, can reveal areas where real estate development interests are active.

Additional Considerations

Examine the following local plans and requirements:

  • State urban growth management framework including relevant state statutes and plans
  • State building codes
  • Regional and local planning agency and commission land planning process
  • The scope of the community’s comprehensive plans’ growth-related elements
  • Cities’ and counties’ designated service area limits beyond which services and infrastructure are not provided at public expense, development fees, infill incentive districts, and plans that could include expedited process incentives
  • Local zoning ordinances for their various requirements

Mitigation Measures

Consider changing the project location or instituting protective measures to safeguard existing land uses. For example, could tax abatements for certain types of land uses, such as threatened agricultural use, help safeguard existing land uses?

Another option is to consider infill development locations that are in alignment with smart growth objectives or locations that have existing or planned utilities and service systems in alignment with local growth management plans.

Resources to Reference/Experts to Contact

  • State Planning Agency
  • Local and Regional Planning Agency
  • Zoning Review Officer or Administrator
  • Planning Commission/Director