planning in Ohio

In the 1920s, Ohio was a national leader in urban planning. But no more. Today, Ohio lags far behind other states.

The following speech by Stuart Meck, a past president of the American Planning Association and the former planning director of Oxford, Ohio, discusses why the state has fallen behind and why efforts to reform land use planning have failed. The speech was presented at a conference on Growth and Redevelopment Issues and Strategies for the '90s, which was sponsored by the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission and the Cleveland Area Board of Realtors in 1991.

By Stuart Meck

It is not without some measure of irony that I speak to you today. I fall into that somewhat grumpy, heterogeneous mass of individuals called "former Clevelanders." Some 20 years ago, as a young graduate in city planning from Ohio State University, I left the Cleveland area frustrated, unable to find the kind of job that would enable me to practice the type of planning that I was trained to do and which I believed needed to be done.

Northeast Ohio's communities, it seemed to me, were clearly unreceptive, even hostile, to addressing long-range issues affecting their growth and development through the planning process. The fact that you are holding this conference today (and sitting here listening to me) is a measure of how much things have changed.

Ohio: An early leader in planning

Ohio, in the 1920s, was perhaps America's leader in city planning. In the Cincinnati area, we had Alfred Bettman, a brilliant attorney, the city's law director, and later the chair of its planning commission. Bettman was the principal draftsman of the Standard City Planning and Zoning Enabling Acts, published and promulgated by the U.S. Department of Commerce. These model acts created the American system of planning and land use control and still, some 65 years later, you can find their basic structure embedded in the planning enabling legislation of most states.

The 1926 U.S. Supreme Court case, Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., which established the constitutionality of zoning, came from Ohio. The case was argued by two Clevelanders, James Metzenbaum, for the village of Euclid, and Newton D. Baker, for Ambler Realty. Alfred Bettman filed a friend-of-the-court brief which many credit as changing the minds of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, persuading them to uphold this newfangled thing called zoning.

National experimentation with growth management

Up until the 1970s, land use planning and regulatory systems in the U.S. were primarily concerned with putting the right things in the right places. But, as environmental degradation, congested highways, affordable housing, and growth and how to deal with it became hot local political issues in our country, many rapidly urbanizing communities in the U.S. began to experiment with growth management systems, land use and public facilities systems that direct not only the type and location of development but also the rate at which it occurred.

Dominant among them were development timing or adequate public facilities ordinances, like those of Ramapo, New York. These allowed development to occur only when specified public facilities were shown either to be available to serve the development or instead provided by a developer at his cost ahead of the long-range schedule, the capital improvement program, adopted by the local government. Florida has a concurrency provision in its state planning laws: local governments cannot approve a development permit unless it can be shown that the necessary supporting infrastructure and related community facilities either exist at the time the permit is issued or are committed for construction concurrent with the impact of development. The infrastructure and facilities must at least meet state level-of-service standards.

Other communities like Petaluma, California, established building permit allocation systems in which only a certain number of building permits would be awarded in a city for a given year through a sophisticated permit award competition.

Some established urban service areasboundaries beyond which water, sewer and other urban services would not be extended and beyond which urban-level development would not be allowed.

Impact fee ordinances are currently popular, as communities, particularly those without local income taxes, look for additional sources of revenue. They ask that a developer pay a fee to cover the proportional costs, both direct and indirect, for community facilities required for new development. Using devices called linkage fees, some communities are requiring developers of market rate housing, and office, industrial and commercial space, to contribute funds to build or help rehabilitate affordable housing where such housing is in short supply.

Thus, there is tremendous ferment and experimentation going on in planning throughout the United States, all of it the result of a more balanced, comprehensive vision of what it takes to produce good communities, the delicate combination of attention to the environment, good design, adequate infrastructure, jobs, and the provision of housing for all income levels and life styles.

States revamp planning legislation

Much of this experimentation has been fueled by the efforts of the various states. Since the mid-1980s, states like Rhode Island, Vermont, New Jersey, Maine, Delaware, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Florida (which is, far and away, the most advanced) have revamped their state planning and land use enabling legislation. Currently, nearby states like Michigan and Pennsylvania are considering major changes to theirs. Virtually all of these changes reflect the importance of a strong, even mandatory, planning process underpinning land use regulation and program of public expenditures, with a heightened degree of state-level policy review.

While I'd like to say that the State of Ohio has matched the ground-breaking, visionary efforts of other states, it hasn't. In fact, it has consistently and shamefully fumbled on issues of planning and growth management, dragging its feet behind those of the other states.

Ohio land use review committee

Nearly 20 years ago, Ohio took a stab at land use reform. The Ohio General Assembly created a bipartisan group in 1975 to review land use laws, programs and systems of land use control at the state, regional, county and local levels and to make recommendations to the state legislature. The committee was chaired by former State Senator Kenneth Cox, with then Representative Arthur Brooks, from Cleveland, as vice-chair. It held two sets of public hearings and published two reports; the final report was issued in 1977.

Among its recommendations:

  • The planning commission of each municipality should prepare a comprehensive plan for adoption by the legislative body.
  • Municipal development regulations and their administration should conform to the adopted municipal comprehensive plan.
  • Each municipality should prepare and adopt a capital improvement program which conforms to the adopted municipal plan.
  • A single uniform procedure for large-scale development review of shopping centers, sports complexes, second home developments, industrial parks should be enacted by the General Assembly to address projects with regional and statewide impacts.
  • A countywide planning commission should be established to oversee the preparation of a countywide general plan and set up a process for designating environmentally sensitive areas.
  • Regional tax-base sharing should be studied to eliminate beggar-thy-neighbor/winner-take-all local government competition for commercial and industrial property tax base.

While the report did not anticipate the need for growth management techniques of the type I mentioned earlier, its recommendations would have produced a number of needed and long-overdue reforms in the state's planning laws, arising from a view that the Ohio of the 1970s was not the Ohio of the 1920s.

Fate of land use reform in Ohio

Senator Cox introduced an omnibus bill incorporating the committee's recommendations in 1978. It sank like a stone.

Some reasons:

  • Opposition of agricultural interests in Ohio. They were worried that the legislation would place limitations on farmers to have their cake and eat it, tooto get tax breaks for preferential agricultural use valuation (the valuation of property at its farm, rather its speculative use) and still be able to sell it for development whenever they wanted to with no or minimal penalty.
  • Opposition of some local government associations. They were against the bill because it limited local government discretion, curtailed arbitrariness, seemed to require a "reason" for governmental actions, required consistency, and called for expenditure of funds for planning prior to regulation.
  • A four-track system in Ohio with vigorously competing interestscounties, townships, statutory plan municipalities, home-rule municipalitieswith no incentive to work together for a single system or across local government boundaries to minimize adverse impacts of development and spread around its benefits.
  • A highly dispersed urban state with each urban area seeing issues in a different waythe due process you get in Cleveland is different than the due process you get in Cincinnati.
  • Lack of support by a small, narrowly-focused environmental movement, now mostly concerned with landfills and groundwater rather than broader issues of land management which animate environmentalists elsewhere.
  • No growth management movement or impetus to start oneno perceived mismatch between rapid development and lack of supporting infrastructure. Planning legislation was viewed as anti-economic development. Ohio was trying to hold onto what growth it had rather than try to slow it down.
  • A state government that had no activist tradition either at the executive or legislative levels in the areas of housing, infrastructure or the environment, much less in the provision of local government assistance.
  • Finally, the impact of what I call the "garage-sale school" of land use regulationthe still-prevalent philosophy here in Ohio that local government planning operations can be run sloppily (like a garage sale), with little attention to detail, because there were no terrible (meaning monetary) consequences for screwing up or endlessly jacking around developers and home builders with procedural delays.

That was then. This is now.

I think it is time we unearth that old report of the Ohio Land Use Review Committee and see what wisdom it has to offer. This conference today suggests to me that, as we move into the '90s, there is a compelling recognition that we will need the best planning tools available to continue to make our towns livable. I think we have long moved past the point where Ohioans will tolerate their communities, and, indeed, their state, run like a garage sale and looking that way, too.

Stuart Meck is also co-author of Ohio Planning and Zoning Law, published by Banks-Baldwin Law Publishing Co.


Back to top

EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2003

Back to Corn Fields contents




While I'd like to say that the State of Ohio has matched the ground-breaking, visionary efforts of other states, it hasn't. In fact, it has consistently and shamefully fumbled on issues of planning and growth management, dragging its feet behind those of the other states.

go to home page

Related Links:









Partner Links