2007-09-27 / Editorial

A zoning primer

By Robin Monihan-Yoffa

Prior to the beginning of the 20th century, most land use regulations relied upon the common law theory of nuisance, which prohibited unreasonable uses of land that impacted the public's health and safety. However the mere prohibition of nuisances was not sufficient to stop the blight and decay found in the 19th century urban areas and to address uncontrolled development in other areas.

In the 1920's the Department of Commerce published the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act. The legislature vested local governments with the power to adopt and enforce zoning ordinances to further the comprehensive plan for development of the community. This is how local zoning ordinances started in communities across the United States, to protect the safety, health and wellbeing of the townspeople.

Residential zoning was designed to preserve the character of neighborhoods as well as practical health and safety issues. Side setbacks made sure that houses were not too close together which could present a fire spreading hazard. Setbacks also insured side yards to give privacy to each home. Front setbacks addressed the automobile in the driveway, proximity to sidewalks and act as a buffer to the street. Height restrictions prevented a house from being significantly taller than a neighboring house which could cast that house in shadow and negate privacy to a back yard or porch. It also prevented the area from becoming too dense with too much traffic and noise which would be a detriment to the neighborhood as a whole.

The Shores is an example of a neighborhood planned as a summer cottage community for one to two bedroom homes on lots that were designed for just that. The zoning was put in place to maintain that vernacular. We have impacted the density in the Shores significantly over the last twenty years by granting variances for larger and larger homes.

When you purchase a lot, and plan to build, it is up to the homeowner to review the building codes and zoning ordinances to see what local codes apply. This is in place for the protection of everyone in the neighborhood. Zoning codes allow for special exceptions (variances) when needed to be in "harmony with the zoning's general purpose and intent." This safety valve was seen as critical to due process." Variances were not intended to redefine the zoning ordinance.

Zoning districts prevent factories and commercial enterprises in residential neighborhoods. It also provides for commercial zones, industrial zones and transitional zones where each area goes by similar regulations. These districts have zoning regulations based on the type of enterprise, the physical lot size and in some cases, grandfather allowances. Regulations can also affect more abstract things, like parking and aesthetics, like signage or style. Each community decides how strict (Nantucket) or how relaxed (West Warwick) some of these regulations will be. Parking in older towns is frequently an issue because the buildings and streets were designed before the advent of the automobile, and in older towns residential areas are often next to the commercial district. The fact that you can't park in front of your favorite restaurant on a Saturday night in the summer does not require a rewrite of the zoning/parking ordinance in Jamestown. Maybe we need to be more creative with areas, like the schools, that have the extra parking we need in the summer. We also need to protect those residential areas that abut the commercial zone.

I think the success of our downtown area would indicate that the current zoning works overall, but granted, may need some revising. I don't know of any business that was not successful strictly due to the town's zoning regulations.

I urge everyone to get involved with the Comprehensive Community Plan Review, or at least go online and take the Jamestown Vision survey. You can immediately check the results and see what your neighbors are thinking!

Editor's note: Yoffa is an interior designer, living on Hamilton Avenue.

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