Rules Made to be Broken: Zany Zoning Laws

Zoning, codes and other regulations—they’re responsible for plenty of protection to both our environment and us.  For instance, regulations have been used to ban sewage treatment plants from discharging directly into bodies of water or to keep a chemical plant from setting up shop in a residential neighborhood.

The idea is that regulations can change to keep up, whether it’s with new threats or new opportunities.  But sometimes the laws have yet to catch up with new realities.  For instance, many places have clothesline bans, requiring residents to use clothes dryers—and energy—instead of hanging them out on the line.  Or take these recent examples in the news:

  • In Baltimore, Maryland, Maxine Taylor was cited by the city for having a driveway made out of wood chips instead of the required concrete, asphalt, brick or stone.  The irony is that Baltimore’s own regulation is in violation of the new Sustainability Plan the city adopted in 2009. The plan calls for the city, and its residents, to get rid of pavement where they can, and reduce the amount of runoff  winding up in Baltimore Harbor.  City officials understand the conundrum, but haven’t changed the requirement.
  • Baltimore has now proposed a number of changes to its zoning codes, many of which are designed to be more environmentally friendly. In terms of driveway requirements, the new code clarifies that grass, pavers, and other materials can be used for driveways, so for instance you could put in two strips of brick or pavers, just enough for a car's wheels to rest on. The draft of Baltimore's proposed new zoning codes is available for public comment throughout the summer at Transformbaltimore.net. (Residents should note  that Section 16 is on parking. Item 16-407 is on the driveway requirement changes.)
  • Southern California couple Quan and Angelina Ha had to fight City Hall over the right not to have a lawn.  They tore out theirs and replaced it with wood chips and drought-resistant plants, including lavender, rosemary and horsetail. They estimate they’ve cut their water usage by 80% (from nearly 300,000 gallons to about 58,000 gallons in 2009). The city of Orange, where they live, held them in violation of local ordinances and brought them to court on misdemeanor charges.  Orange City Attorney David DeBerry says the city dropped the charges after the Has complied with the city ordinance requiring at least 40 percent of front lawns have some kind of live vegetation. "The city's regulations actually encourage the use of drought-tolerant plants," said DeBerry.

Around the country, municipalities, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and citizens are working with urban designers and land-use planners to rescind outdated regulations or create new ones to achieve their visions. For instance, a number of communities, from local neighborhood associations to the entire state of Florida, have overturned clothesline bans. 

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A shining example is the Orenco Station, a neighborhood in Hillsboro, Oregon, about 15 miles west of Portland.  It’s a 200+ acre neighborhood developed in the 1990s as the antithesis of suburban sprawl. Orenco Station was designed around a light rail system in a way that would feel more like the kind of older neighborhood that most current zoning makes impossible.  It’s built around walking and using public transit, with a main street, several parks, housing, offices, retail space, and a seasonal farmers’ market coexisting side-by-side. The developers worked with planners, community design experts, and city officials to make significant changes to zoning regulations.  This allowed amenities like narrower, 20-foot wide streets; buildings set close to the sidewalk; alleys for garages behind the houses; apartment buildings that could sit alongside single-family houses; and shops, restaurants and restaurants close by.

Not all communities have the luxury of creating themselves out of whole cloth as Orenco Station did.  Charlotte, North Carolina, has brought back the train as well, opening a light rail line in late 2007.  To make it an economic, as well as environmental, success, they created what’s known as Transit-Oriented Zoning, or TOZ, to encourage development that supported public transit. “We needed to reduce parking and provide higher density,” says Kent Main, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County’s planning coordinator for economic development. Among the changes they made was allowing taller buildings. Main says even with the current economic slowdown, they’ve seen four large apartment complexes along the rail line open in the last year.

On an entirely different note, we’ve seen state and federal incentives grow for alternative energy projects like installing solar panels on your house.  But for many places, local or state regulations have added on other charges, making even the most solar-enthusiastic hesitate.  In Alabama, utility companies required homeowners to buy an annual $1 million insurance policy to protect the utility company from liability, if a homeowner wanted to tie into the grid and sell any extra energy generated back to the utility company. “I had heard it cost about $5,000 a year,” says Daryl Bergquist of Earth Steward Solar Consulting. “Nobody connected up, because of the cost of the insurance.” In 2008, Alabama passed the Alternative and Renewable Energy Act, which dropped this requirement for small systems (25 kW or smaller), making solar more economically viable in the state.

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