Are counties subject to municipal zoning

Visitor Question: Are counties subject to a municipality's zoning ordinance? Our county government is proposing a new recreation center, and they claim that they don't have to obey our town's zoning ordinance because they are a higher level of government. They especially don't want to provide as much parking as our ordinance requires, and I am afraid that people will be parking all over the neighborhood at popular times of the day or when there is a basketball tournament of interest to the public.

Editors Reply: In many states, units of government have successfully claimed immunity from zoning. Public universities and state governments in general often are guilty of defying local regulations, especially zoning, when it suits their purposes.

We would like to answer that yes, your county is subject to the municipality’s zoning ordinance. We think cities should always try to exert that authority. But we are afraid that if the matter with were taken to court, your city might lose.

One path forward for your city is to meet privately with the county to explain your concerns about parking in a residential neighborhood, a very legitimate concern. Perhaps your city leaders can use some of their built-up good will with the county, which we hope exists, to persuade the county to be innovative in its approach to parking.

For example, a shared parking arrangement with a nearby church, business, or park might provide overflow parking when needed. Sometimes a nominal annual rent or fee will entice an otherwise uncooperative business to consider shared parking when the times of day and the week for the shared parking are carefully defined. Of course sometimes there is no other nearby parking that can be shared. While shared parking might not be permitted under your zoning ordinance, it might relieve the real, on-the-ground situation that you fear.

Incidentally, if your zoning ordinance does not include a provision for shared parking, your city might want to consider it.

If your city government itself will not negotiate with the county on behalf of the neighborhood and its residents, your neighborhood should attempt to meet with county leaders. Probably you won't be as successful as the city's elected leaders could be, but it is definitely worth the effort. Sometimes a county or state government simply is more ignorant than arrogant in dealing with neighborhoods, and you can provide information.

If you take this route, arm yourself with information about the attendance and parking needs generated by basketball tournaments in nearby locations, and then project where people would be likely to park in your neighborhood if the same number of cars need to park.

Another possibility is that your city needs to examine its own parking regulations in the zoning ordinance to see if they are excessive. You don't seem to think this is the case, but we mention it because many cities are finding that their parking requirements, which planning commissions and planning consultants often copy from one city to another are too stringent and that much of the parking sits empty for most days of the year.

If you and your city are unable to bring the county into compliance with a reasonable zoning requirement for parking, you the neighbors are left with trying to persuade the county employees who program the recreation center to become creative about how they could limit parking in the neighborhood. They could do things such as closing down some aspects of their programming when a large crowd is expected, or they could figure out a fun way to incentivize households to carpool to their more popular events. If the geography lends itself to a few people walking or biking to events, ask the recreation center to provide prizes or stickers for people who actually do so.

If you live where there is a transit service, you also could work with that entity to try to provide convenient express bus service to major events. Short of that, you could work out a shuttle service from some large existing parking lot that is too far away from the new recreation center to walk, but a short shuttle away.

So you do have options to explore, but fundamentally and we think unfortunately, many higher levels of government have successfully fought against having to comply with local zoning. Get creative in finding out ways to address the problem.

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