Streamlining the zoning ordinance: Part 1

Zoning can be confusing and hard to understand. There are several zoning streamlining techniques to make zoning easier to understand and use.

Writing a zoning ordinance or any legal document is difficult. First, one wants to be very precise and cover all the bases. But at the same time, there is a desire to make it easy to understand and follow, and that it does not leave open various loopholes.

Accomplishing the first part (precise, covering all the bases, no loopholes) often results in what many people call “legalese.” So the challenge is how to accomplish writing zoning in an easy-to-understand format. This is the topic of a new training program offered by Michigan State University Extension. The program, Streamlining the Zoning Ordinance, is currently being offered in Traverse City September 22, 2014; Boyne City September 24, 2014 and Manistee September 29, 2014. But it can also be offered in other parts of the state. Contact your local land use educator to set one up in your part of the state.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but one of the first rules for doing this is to avoid over-simplifying. One example of doing so is the sample math quiz question shown in the image. “Question 3” is simple and short: “find X.” In the context of a quiz it make sense, and a person is expected to know the Pythagorean Theorem, do the math, and provide the answer X = 36.05cm (square root of 20cm2 + 30cm2 = X). But with a zoning ordinance, there will be individuals who will look for the loophole and use it. That will be the individual that circles the X and writes “here is where ‘X’ is.” A judge is bound to interpret the text of the ordinance literally, and may likely rule circling the X is a correct answer.

So the bottom version of question 3 is much longer, but it avoids the loophole. The thing to keep in mind is that making zoning simpler and easier to use is not necessarily going to make the zoning ordinance shorter. There are many practitioners in planning and zoning that would say simply making zoning shorter for shorter sake is not responsible.

So what are some ways to simplify zoning and make it easier to use? Here are some ideas which are covered in more detail in the Streamlining the Zoning Ordinance training:

First, avoid saying the same thing more than once. If it is the same requirement in each zoning district, then it can be placed in the zoning ordinance section for general provisions (which apply everywhere in the jurisdiction). Save space within each zoning district for only those requirements which are unique to that zoning district.

Provide user-friendly legal citations. Most people will not know what P.A. 350 of 1917 is. Nor will they know what MCL 445.401 et seq. is. Instead, use the popular title of the statute that you are citing. The title gives the reader a hint about the subject of the statute, what it is about and how it ties into that part of the zoning ordinance. For example: “P.A. 350 of 1917, as amended, (the Second Hand Junk Dealers Act, being M.C.L. 445.401 et seq.)”.

Make sure the legal citation is complete. “P.A. 350” is not a complete citation. There are likely 177 different P.A. 350s in Michigan at this time. The citation stands for the 350th Public Act adopted in a given year. So the year is an important part of the citation: “P.A. 350 of 1917.” Actually, it would be even more user-friendly to use the Michigan Complied Laws (MCL) citation. MCL is a Dewey-decimal-like system that classifies and organizes Michigan Statues by subject. Also, it is very easy to look up the current version of a statute using MCL at the Michigan Legislature website. Using MCL might also make the citation shorter: “Second Hand Junk Dealers Act (MCL 445.401 et seq.)”.

Another way to visually make zoning easier to understand is to break down regulations into lists. Compare both of these standards for a junk yard:

Shall be set back 300 feet from a road right-of-way or 333 feet from the centerline of a road, whichever is greater; or 100 feet from a road right-of-way or 133 feet from the centerline of a road, whichever is greater with a further buffer area to screen it from view from a road and from adjacent parcels by means of an opaque fence, vegetation, earth berm, or another form of screening, or a combination of the above; or 100 feet from a road right-of-way or 133 feet from the centerline of a road, whichever is greater and shall not be visible from a road or from adjacent parcels.

This says the same thing:

Shall be designed to comply with one of the following:

  1. If not visible from a road or adjacent parcels: set back 100 feet from a road right-of-way or 133 feet from the centerline of a road, whichever is closer to the center of the parcel.
  2. If visible from a road or adjacent parcels: set back 300 feet from a road right-of-way or 333 feet from the centerline of a road, whichever is closer to the center of the parcel.
  3. If visibility is artificially blocked: 100 feet from a road right-of-way or 133 feet from the centerline of a road, whichever is closer to the center of the parcel.
    1. Artificially blocked visibility shall be by means of one of the following:
      1. an opaque fence,
      2. vegetation,
      3. earth berm,
      4. another form of screening, or
      5. a combination of the above.

Even though both examples show the same thing, the second is visually easier to follow. By use of indents and a modified outline format one can “see” which parts are subsets of which main paragraphs, the entirely of a list and avoiding confusion of which parts or lists of which parts. But also not the second version of the text is actually longer than the first part.

A major part of a zoning ordinance is about the administrative procedures one follows: hearing notices, the hearing, content of an application, standards used to review and act on a case and so on. The parts of a zoning ordinance on procedure should not be intermingled with the parts of a zoning ordinance on requirements, or standards, for a land use. There will be readers of your zoning ordinance that focus on what is required of them – how to design and layout their project. The goal is they should find everything they need to know by reading the part of the zoning ordinance that has their zoning district requirements, the Article on general provisions, etc. There are others (the agent, or attorney, for the applicant) that want to know what they need in their permit application and what the steps are to process that application. That should be in another part of the zoning ordinance: the sections on administration. Do not mix standards/requirement with procedure/process.

When outlining the procedure, or process that is used, present the requirements in the same order that it is expected to be done. In other words, organize the sections on administration in the same chronological order in which it is done. For example:

  • First a pre-application meeting,
  • Next, what the application requirements (content, fee) are,
  • Then, the zoning administrator reviews for completeness,
  • After which s/he prepares hearing notices and send them out,
  • Fifth, planning commission holds the hearing,
  • When done, then considers standards, conditions, performance security and makes a decision,
  • And finally making a record of the permit.

There are many more hints and ways to make a zoning ordinance easier to use and to understand. Several of those techniques are presented in the new Streamlining the Zoning Ordinance training program including ordinance organization, layout design and formatting on paper and for the Internet, use to tables charts and illustrations, and various legal requirements.

Other articles in this series:

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