Zoning and Conditional Use Permits
Zoning implements the general plan; it separates a community into districts, or “zones,” that regulate land uses and the intensity of development. A zoning designation is assigned to every legally defined parcel within a zone in the community. A zoning map shows officials and the public the location of the various zones, and the zoning code specifies which uses are permitted in those zones and the standards that apply to each use.
The original impetus behind zoning was to protect public health and welfare by ensuring that neighboring land uses are compatible. For example, residential uses are generally incompatible with heavy industrial uses, such as a factory or food processing plant. In recent years, cities and counties have modified their zoning ordinances or other planning regulations in response to the growing awareness of how land use affects health.
Some communities have established mixed-use zones that combine a variety of residential, commercial and institutional uses within the same area. This can make it easier for people to reduce their reliance on driving to conduct their daily activities, thus promoting greater physical activity and reducing rates of traffic injuries. Zoning ordinances have also been revised to promote greater access to healthy food choices; for example, allowing full-service grocery stores in residential neighborhoods as well as lifting legal barriers to farmers markets and community gardens.
Zoning changes are often made following the adoption of new goals and policies in the general plan. It is important for local officials to avoid ad hoc decision-making that could raise legal concerns regarding the fairness or proportionality of zoning requirements. They can do this by making sure that the zoning regulations that set conditions on development are consistent with the long-range goals and policies established in the general plan.
Conditional use permits (also called special use permits) are another planning tool that can be used to advance health objectives. Conditional uses are land uses that because of their special nature may be suitable only in certain locations, or arranged or operated in a particular manner. For example:
- Local agencies can restrict the time, place and manner in which convenience stores, liquor stores and fast-food outlets operate.
- Community gardens can be allowed under specified conditions in certain zones.
- As a condition of approval, large mixed-use development projects can be encouraged or required to offer to lease commercial space for a grocery store in a neighborhood that lacks access to healthy foods.
The Institute offers a series of tip sheets on land use decisions, available in both English and Spanish. Access About Conditional Use Permits and About Zoning Changes (Rezoning), using the link below, which explain:
- What a “conditional use permit” and a “zone change” is
- How such permits and zone changes fit into efforts to shape communities
- How to participate in the decision-making process
- Establishing Land Use Protections for Farmers' Markets, ChangeLab Solutions
- Want to dive deeper into this topic? Visit ILG's Health, Planning & Community Design webpage
- Creating a Regulatory Blueprint for Healthy Community Design, International City/County Management Association
- Move this Way: Making Neighborhoods More Walkable & Bikable (ChangeLab Solutions, 2014)