Common problems we observe in local zoning: Part 1

MSU Extension land use specialists are often reading zoning from many different communities. Doing so shows us that many communities have items completely or partially missing from their zoning that a community might consider adding to its zoning.

Downtown Petoskey, Michigan at the Tipp-Of-The-Mitt Watershed Council. Photo credit: Kurt Schindler
Downtown Petoskey, Michigan at the Tipp-Of-The-Mitt Watershed Council. Photo credit: Kurt Schindler

As part of the job as a Michigan State University Extension educator in land use we end up reading or skimming through many different zoning ordinances from around Michigan. As a result we notice that there are many communities which simply do not have some basic and important parts in their zoning ordinance. 

This article is intended as a list you might use to compare with your community’s zoning ordinance. Are these topics covered? Should they be? While most of these topics are found in zoning ordinances, there are going to be exceptions. So just because it is listed here does not mean it absolutely should be included in every single zoning ordinance. 

This is the one of two articles on a similar topic. The other article, part 2, focuses on some basic and important parts in their zoning ordinance which are completely missing. 

The list of things commonly missing from a zoning ordinance are:

  • Groundwater protection: Groundwater is a source for a more than 44 percent of Michigander’s drinking water. In much of the state what gets dumped on the surface of the ground can make its way into our drinking water. A strong point for zoning is its ability to prevent problems from happening. Avoiding groundwater contamination issues is one of those. It is particularly important for land uses which store, ship and use hazardous substances. See these resources on ground and surface water protection, in particular: Land Use SeriesGroundwater and surface water protection”.
  • Water and wetland setback and buffers: Again, zoning can be very effective at preventing the problems associated with this issue in the first place. See these resources on ground and surface water protection, in particular: Lakeland Report #12, "Greenbelts: A Circle of Protection for Inland Lakes" or more recent publications from the Tip-of-the-Mitt watershed council. Also see these MSUE News articles: Local government has an important role for water quality protection: Part one, two, and three.
  • Undevelopable land: Not all land should be developed. Zoning should be directing development, or intense versus sparse development based on those land characteristics. If there are large areas of land which are not suited for development, then zoning should not include it in a residential zoning district. Rather it might be rural, or some other very low density zoning. Some zoning ordinances, for example, require a minimum parcel size which, when measured, does not include areas which are sand dune with slopes over 18%, beaches contiguous to a lake or stream, wetland, areas which are not suited for on-site septic systems, flood plain areas that would have a destructive current, existing public utility easements, right-of-ways, and slopes over 25%. Every parcel created would have enough area, exclusive of these features, on which someone can build and use the land.
  • Parking: There should be standards in the design for parking so a certain proportion of the parking lot is a pervious surface. This might be for the part of the parking lot for overflow on the busiest days. Also provisions for bicycle parking, and for sharing parking lots between different land uses. See
  • Firewise: With major fires destroying hundreds of homes in California one should give thought to zoning’s pro-active preventative characteristics to protect homes and other buildings from wildfire. Zoning can provide site plan design standards or education to help protect property from wildfire. To do so zoning needs to include provisions to protect property and buildings from wild fire (forest fires). Here is where one can find resources on Firewise. In particular several different sample zoning approaches for this topic are detailed in the publication Land Use Series: "Sample Wildfire Hazard Zoning" and further explained here.
  • Deadlines: Time is money. A developer will shy away from a community that takes too long to make decisions, or will try to avoid an approval process that takes a longer amount of time. Consider including in the zoning ordinance deadlines for making decisions. Amend zoning to require a 65 day (or shorter) deadline for final action on special use permits (with the 65 day time line starting when the application is formally found complete), a 35 day (or shorter) deadline for completing site plan reviews, and a requirement for the average length of time to act on zoning permits to be three days. Always include a means to extend the deadline when both the applicant and zoning jurisdiction mutually agree to do so.
  • Home occupations: Define home occupation as an activity that does not have any external evidence of its existence except for a small sign and parking for a few cars. Then make home occupations an automatic part of any dwelling, not needing approval or a permit in all zoning districts. This minimizes red tape and provides a very accommodating environment for entrepreneurs – some of which might grow (into a new location) and may foster a successful growing business and source of jobs in your community. Have other standards for a more intense and noticeable “home business,” “home enterprise,” or “home industry” that might be allowed as a permitted use (use by right) or special use in certain zoning districts.
  • Placemaking: If your zoning jurisdiction has not already, it should be updating its master plan to include placemaking strategies, goals and objectives. That should be turned into specific new provisions of the zoning ordinance to foster placemaking. In urban environments Placemaking can include complete streets, neighborhoods, urban street design, façade design requirements, and more. For rural areas it includes identifying and capitalizing on special and unique areas and is an important reinforcement of a regional economy.
  • Mixed use zoning: Zoning should be allowing, and creating mixed use districts that include residential, commercial, and office. (Consider form-based zoning, see below) Treat these mixed use forms of development as the “default” development system which has fast, easy review and approval – the way to develop which is the path of least resistance. Save the Planned Unit Development and special use permit processes for those developments which are not mixed use oriented. Go even further and allow complementary mixed uses close together or within the same building. Create mixed housing areas that include dwellings (single family homes), duplexes, apartment buildings, row-houses, and so on. The “mix” would also include accommodating construction of the “missing middle” forms of housing, especially now when that style of housing is anticipated to be the most in demand.
  • Inclusionary zoning: Zoning might require inclusionary zoning, that is zoning that requires a certain percent of work force housing in all developments. If not a requirement than maybe a system of incentives (density bonus, allow a taller building). (Work force housing includes affordable housing for lower income individuals and homes that can be afforded by young families starting out in your community: the just hired teacher, policeperson, and others starting their career).
  • Special use permits: Reduce the number of special uses listed in each district. Turn them into permitted uses, or create a new zoning district that includes territory within the existing zoning district where they would be okay as permitted uses. The idea is to reduce red tape.
  • Form based zoning: Consider form based zoning for downtown areas as well as other commercial nodes, and areas transitioning into commercial. Designate abandoned/unused industrial and commercial sites as form-based zones. Form-based zoning is particularly good at handling adaptive re-use of existing buildings for re-development of those urban areas.
  • New infrastructure: Many zoning ordinances require adequate road rights-of-way, space for phone, electric, water and sewer, lines. But there is new infrastructure now that many zoning ordinances do not have any provisions about: telecommunication, broadband, and other Internet facilities. Zoning should address this for new developments, areas being retrofitted, and redevelopment sites.
  • Agriculture and forestry: Broadly define agriculture and forestry to accommodate innovation without encountering additional permit review processes. Agriculture and forestry (working lands industries) need to innovate and change like any business does in today’s economy. Make that process of innovation to new and different forms of agriculture and forestry easy to do. Recognize those are industries, not necessarily suited to residential land uses. Have areas set aside that favor those working land uses over other types of development. List agriculture as a permitted use in agricultural and rural-residential districts.
  • Wind and Solar: Consider zoning that accommodates, or even requires wind and/or solar technologies as part of residential, commercial, and industrial development, retrofitting, and redevelopment. These technologies include photovoltaic systems that convert sunlight to electricity, solar hot water systems that heat water for swimming pools and buildings, solar space heating systems that provide heat for buildings, passive solar designs that heat buildings and strategies that use sunlight to reduce electricity used for lighting, and so on. 

Michigan State University Extension land use educators provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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