Zoned for your protection?

The failure of zoning in the age of suburbia

At the rural edges of Greater Cleveland there is a growing sense that things are out of control.

The feeling comes from the quickening pace of development with scale and impact far beyond anything rural communities have experienced before. As a result, residents feel they are losing what makes their communities special. They feel that their expectations for the future have been violated. And they feel that all this growththe subdivisions, superstores, industrial parks, and the new highways and sewer lines which make it all possibleis unnecessary and unsustainable.

In many respects, it's a tragedy of the commons. When many individual people seek a life in the country (and the state subsidizes their moves with public infrastructure investments), they collectively end up destroying the rural character they seek. Thus, the challenge for many communities in the region is how to enact public policies which can guide individual choices so the commons are enhanced for everyone, now and in the future.

The problem is that communities often lack the tools to create the futures they want. For example, they often rely on outmoded zoning schemes designed to separate various land uses. As urban planner Jonathan Barnett writes in his book, The Fractured Metropolis:

"These regulations were invented to fit relatively small increments of new development into towns and cities that were already well established. It was not anticipated that lot-by-lot zoning and subdivision would become the sole development control for hundreds or even thousands of acres, as has now become routine. The requirements are blind to the idiosyncrasies of terrain and orientation, the beauties of the natural landscape, the perils of erosion and ecological disturbance. They say nothing about variety, balance, or the necessary ingredients of a community. At a small scale, within established towns or suburbs, these deficiencies were not severe; but conventional zoning and subdivision are disastrously inadequate when used to create whole new residential areas."

More often than not, conventional zoning is a prescription for the very kind of suburban sprawl that people don't want. Everything gets developed.

To limit the damage, many communities seek to increase minimum lot sizesto an acre or morein an effort to spread out development and try to retain some semblance of rural character. While this technique does lower housing density, it also increases land consumption and makes housing unaffordable for most people. It creates "suburbia with a wide lens," a place with lots too large to mow, too small to farm, and too fragmented to provide a meaningful sense of open space.

Sensitive development

What's the alternative? How can development respect the land and the character of the community?

In the past few years a number of local land conservation groupsLake Metroparks, local land trusts, soil and water conservation districtshave sponsored forums on creative development methods. In a talk last November in Hiram sponsored by Headwaters Landtrust, the guru of sensitive rural development, Randall Arendt, extolled the virtues of clustering homes to preserve open space.

"Change is inevitable. Development will occur," he said. "The question is: on what terms?...Will we have the bland homogenization of the countrysidea land consumptive process where everything is converted to house lots and streets?"

In most cases, developers just give us what is required, Arendt said. "The regulations mandate a one-size-fits-all approach. They are too inflexible to allow anything creative. Zoning has supplanted planning."

Instead of planning subdivisions on a checkerboard grid, Arendt recommended "open-space zoning," a technique that permits new homes to be clustered together and nestled less obtrusively into the landscape. When subdividing land into building lots, he said, one should first identify what is important to preservewetlands, woodlots, productive farmland, scenic vistas, etc. Second, one should figure out how to orient houses to maximize the homeowners' enjoyment of the preserved landscape. And lastly, one should plan the lots and streets. This is the opposite of the typical order of events. It can achieve the same overall density of housing, but it can protect the important environmental and cultural features of the landscape.

"Developers should want to do this," Arendt added. "They end up with a better product that sells faster and for premium prices."

Advantages of clustering

Locally, there are several successful examples of clustering to preserve open space. The Hawksmoor development in Bainbridge Township and the Woods at Wulamo near Wooster are both leaving more than 40% of their total acreage as undeveloped open space.

The techniques seem like a win-win proposition for all involvedfor developers, new homeowners and current rural residents. According to Common Groundwork, a land preservation guidebook published by the local Institute for Environmental Education, cluster development "strikes a balance between preservation and growth. New development pays for the protection of open space, not the local government, since the cost of preserving open space is included in the selling price of each housing unit. In addition, the technique often makes a subdivision more profitable. By clustering homes together, the developer has to spend less money on costly infrastructure improvements such as roads and sewers. By preserving open space, the developer makes the subdivision more attractive to prospective buyers, who realize that many of the natural features that attracted them to the community will remain protected."

Limitations to cluster development

But open space zoning techniques have drawbacks. As Jonathan Barnett notes, "Clustering building does not correct the underlying defects of commercial strips or extensive tracts of large lot zoning. The looser regulations possible within planned unit development apply only to large tracts of unbuilt land. Developers are encouraged to look for properties at the fringe of communities, which both accelerates urban sprawl andby making it easier to build elsewhereallows developers to skip more difficult infill sites that ought to be developed first.

"Planned unit development also encourages the creation of isolated districts with separate street systems, which fragment communities socially and cause more traffic congestion than in traditionally planned towns and suburbs with more alternate routes," he says.

Perhaps the biggest concern about flexible zoning methods, Barnett adds, is the "tendency to reduce all regulation to a negotiated deal between the developer and the planning authorities...As metropolitan areas have grown to include small towns and unincorporated parts of counties, local authorities are often outgunned by the developer's planning and legal team."

Many local elected officials are leery about open space zoning for other reasons, as well. There's still a misconception that people moving to the country want acres of land all their own, instead of shared natural areas.

There also are the problems of water and sewer. According to Common Groundwork: "The clustering of dwelling units may prevent adequate recharge of well water and may cause overuse of the septic system for the soil conditions under which the original density was calculated. In a number of cases, the Ohio EPA has subsequently required the connection of public water supplies and/or the installation of sewage lines to a waste treatment facility. These costs have been paid by the community, in some situations, not by the developer or homeowners entirely. Once water and sewage facilities are nearby, further high density development in the community may follow."

And, finally, prejudices about race and class hinder the acceptance of cluster zoning methods. Many suburbanites fear higher density development of any type (even if surrounding open space makes the development density-neutral as a whole) because they worry that smaller lots will bring lower-cost homes and new residents with lower incomes than prevail in the rest of the community.

Comprehensive planning

Proponents of cluster development recognize these limitations. They argue correctly, however, that if development on rural land is inevitable, clustering offers one of the best ways to minimize adverse impacts. As such, it ought to be accepted more widely throughout Northeast Ohio.

To really protect our countryside and our cities from urban sprawl, though, we must have much more than open space zoning. We need comprehensive planning with a whole package of tools to manage the scale, impact and location of growth. And we need to act at the regional level because sprawl is a regional phenomenon.

Specifically, here are some of the hard things we need to do in order to stop the chaotic, wasteful development of rural land in Northeast Ohio:

  • Change state land use laws to require better planning and to coordinate planning between communities.
  • Create a regional vision for where growth should and should not occur.
  • Establish urban growth boundaries around citiesboundaries which set limits to the extension of urban services.
  • Increase resources for planning in rural counties and townships. For example, we need better planning tools to help people appreciate the long-term implications of current trends and policies. A community changes incrementally over many years. Often citizens do not wake up to the horror of a destroyed landscape until it's too late. (The exception may be the battles against superstores like Wal-Marts, where a large-scale change threatens to happen all at once and enables citizens to have a clear idea of the consequences.)
  • Strengthen agricultural zoning to protect family farms.
  • Require natural buffers along waterways and rural roads.
  • Promote the "transfer of development rights" to reduce development in areas where land ought to be protected and increase the density of development where growth is appropriate.
  • End tax abatements for development in the country, and provide incentives to encourage redevelopment of existing urban areas. Sometimes the incentives to work in the city can take the form of political pressure. The City of Cleveland, for example, has used the Community Reinvestment Act to pressure local banks to boost lending in the city. As a result, the banks have pledged to lend more than a billion dollars in Cleveland.

"We have renegotiated the civic contract of banks with the community, and that is changing the reward structure for people doing housing," says Cleveland planning director Hunter Morrison. "The system is set up to build a new subdivision out in Medina. Everybody knows what to dothe banks, appraisers, builders, and so on. It's a slam dunk. Developing in the city is seen as riskier, harder. So you have to change the way business is done."

  • Elect people to local and state offices who are willing to change the allocation public subsidies and infrastructure investments that promote sprawl.

This is a politically daunting list in a state with a strong home-rule tradition like Ohio. And it's tough to talk about land-use controls at a time when any regulation for the common good is labelled a "taking" of private rights.

But we need to do these things. Otherwise, many more of us will wake up someday and be horrified at what "progress" has wrought.


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To really protect our countryside and our cities from urban sprawl, though, we must have much more than open space zoning. We need comprehensive planning with a whole package of tools to manage the scale, impact and location of growth. And we need to act at the regional level because sprawl is a regional phenomenon.


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