How often do cities update their zoning maps

by Dale

Visitor Question: Is there some sort of schedule when cities are required to update their zoning maps? It seems like the zoning gets applied here, and then it just stays and stays. I've been in my home nearly 20 years, and I don't think the city has looked at the zoning for a nearby convenience store in that whole time. My question is whether there is a best practice for changing zoning maps?

Editors Reply: If there is any requirement for a regular review of a city's zoning map, it would be embedded in state law in the U.S., and we are not aware of any such law.

In general, the updating of zoning maps occurs irregularly as a need arises, if at all. Most cities shy away from a large-scale rezoning, although on the zoning question page of this website, you will find a few instances of people claiming their property was rezoned without their knowledge. So yes, zoning map changes, which are not responsive to a right of property owners to petition to change their own zoning classification, do occur. However, most cities are sensitive to resident and voter criticism of these wholesale changes and tend not to undertake them unless they feel it is absolutely necessary to implement their comprehensive plan or address a recurring problem.

So please do not assume that your city is somehow negligent by not having a regular schedule for updating and changing their zoning maps. In fact, we would argue that opening up a process of reviewing all of a city's zoning without any specific purpose or impetus would just encourage folks with power and influence to abuse the system by manipulating an upgrade to their property values. A large-scale rezoning absorbs a considerable amount of city resources, including staff time spent preparing recommendations and answering questions from the public, mail or sign notifications as required by state law or recommended by the city attorney, and legal fees that can mount quickly. It is best not to undertake this without a clear purpose of conforming to the comprehensive plan, which in turn should be backed by extensive public input, legal research, and quality data collection, analysis, and projection into the future.

On the other hand, at times a city should review its zoning district regulations and maps in order to address specific problems. Maybe in your city convenience stores are accompanied by some negative externalities (a fancy economics word for costs that are not directly reflected in pricing) for the community. A particular convenience store may present problems that can be addressed by code enforcement or policing, but convenience stores in general may be considered to be too detrimental to adjoining residential properties. Problems such as noise, litter, hours of operation, traffic, parking that spills over onto residential streets, drug dealing, on-premise alcohol consumption, prostitution, too much lighting, and attraction of people with mental health issues are pretty common. Zoning might deal with some of those issues indirectly through better requirements for shielding the neighborhood from light, noise, and drive-through traffic, but usually existing stores are "grandfathered," meaning they are allowed to continue unless destroyed, when their zoning classification changes. Their conformity to specific regulations such as parking requirements also is typically grandfathered back to the requirement when the land use was initiated. (Changes of ownership of a convenience store typically do not impact grandfathering one way or another.)

Behind your question might be a fear about what happens when the convenience store fails. Competition often drives out a particular convenience store, so it is wise of you to be alert to the underlying zoning classification. Truthfully most cities work on the basis of property owners applying for a zoning change, but if you have truly good arguments, you might convince your city to initiate a rezoning on their own. Talk to your city staff about this potential. If they are quite negative about it, be polite but try to keep the door open for further conversation. If you remain quite civil, you can bring up new evidence of why a rezoning would be appropriate.

Lastly, we advise you to learn about zoning as much as you can. We have a page on sort of the theory of zoning that you should try to absorb. Other pages in the zoning or other sections of the website may help as well. You probably can read your own city's zoning ordinance online; this has become commonplace across the country. Each zoning law is somewhat unique, even though there are many similarities.

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