Top six techniques for streamlining the zoning ordinance

Zoning ordinances can be confusing, but don’t have to be. Planning officials identified the six top techniques for streamlining zoning ordinances during a 2014 workshop.

It is a big challenge for communities to create standards and processes that are complete and legally defensible, yet understandable by planning officials, developers and residents.

Over 160 local officials participated in a Michigan State University Extension workshop held last fall in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, highlighting techniques for making zoning ordinances more a readable, useable and accessible. During the workshop, MSU Extension Land Use educators discussed over 20 different techniques (listed in a related article). That is a daunting number of options. After the workshop, participants were asked which ones they were most likely to apply in their community.

Here are the top six techniques identified by attendees:

  1. Reorganize the ordinance to create a more logical document: Zoning ordinances change over time; new sections are added or moved as new issues arise. Over time, this process can result in a confusing document for readers trying to find the specific standards and procedures the need to follow for their project. There is no perfect structure for an ordinance, but one that logically groups sections, chapters and articles can be very helpful. One way to address the issue is by organizing according to the following general sequence: 1) Introduction, 2) regulations that apply everywhere, 3) district-specific standards and maps, and 4) administration and procedures. One organization example to consider is outlined in Land Use Series “Organization and Codification of a Zoning Ordinance.”
  2. Simplify confusing standards: It is certainly no secret that zoning standards can be very confusing. They do not always have to be that way. For instance, breaking down long, rambling sentences into shorter bullet points helps separate elements of the regulation, making it easier to understand.
  3. Increase use of illustrations: Graphics and pictures can go a long way to help readers visualize a standard. It used to be that developing an illustration for an ordinance was costly and time consuming. Not so now with modern word processing and illustration software. It is not necessary to illustrate every standard, only those that are complex and would benefit from a graphic representation.
  4. Remove duplicate standards and procedures: Strange as it may seem, many ordinance repeat the same standards and procedures in different parts of the ordinance. A common example is placing a standard within the definitions section of an ordnance (not recommended), and repeating the same standard in a general, district or special use chapter.
  5. Revise standards to use clear, concise language: Some standards are just plain wordy – removing unclear and awkward language can result in a standard that everyone understands.
  6. Make sure that the most recent version of the ordinance and zoning map is online (as well as available for purchase as a paper copy): The Web is a great tool for making zoning ordinances more accessible – much better than the days when a resident had to to make a trip to a governmental building at an inconvenient time to purchase a printed copy of the ordinance. Zoning ordinances are available for download in most Michigan Communities. It is essential that the most up-to-date version is available via Web or on paper, otherwise residents and developers are left wondering what the actual regulations are.

Streamlining a zoning ordinance takes time. Focusing on changes that offer the most obvious benefit with modest effort is a good starting point. A pair of related articles (part 1 and part 2) include additional information about streamlining zoning ordinances.

This new training program is offered by Michigan State University Extension. The program, Streamlining the Zoning Ordinance, can be offered in other areas of the state. Contact a local land use educator to set one up in your part of the state.

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