How to Organize Re-Zoning Opposition

You might need a crash course of re-zoning opposition tips if you receive an alarming paper or electronic notice about a zoning change in your neighborhood. Professionals would write that as rezoning. (Many readers don't do the same.)

In many places, the property owner can initiate the rezoning proposal, which also might be called a zoning amendment, change, or petition, just because he or she wants to.

The owner may not be required to tell you or the public what the plans for the property are, even though that is the first thing that you as a neighbor want to know. And if they tell you, often there's no penalty for lying or changing their mind.

Be Informed About Land Uses Permitted Under Zoning

So you have to consider what's the worst case, in terms of the land uses permitted. Someone in the neighborhood needs to get on-line to read the zoning ordinance, which many municipalities now offer.

If you need help understanding what you have read, since many zoning code regulations are not models of clarity, you'll need to ask the city employee in charge of administering the ordinance.

If the ordinance isn't on-line, someone needs to go to city hall or at the very least, talk to a trusted city employee by phone and ask for the entire text pertaining to the proposed zoning classification to be read aloud.

The Rezoning Process

Let's walk through the re-zoning opposition process first. Typically you will have to attend two public meetings in front of two different public bodies. Increasingly these meetings are formal in that a tape recording is being created to serve as the record in case of a zoning lawsuit.

So encourage your re-zoning opposition folks not to exaggerate and otherwise say and do things they will be ashamed of later.

Most places that have zoning also have a planning commission. In all but a few cases, they hold a public hearing on the proposed zoning change first. You and your neighbors need to attend to express your re-zoning opposition.

Even if you are told you can submit a petition or something else that seems relatively painless, you need to show up, even if not everyone in your opposition group is allowed to speak.

The planning commission's action on a re-zoning proposal is only advisory in most states. Learn whether this is true in your community, but also inquire about whether typically the City Council or other governing body follows their advice or ignores it.

Certainly a show of widespread re-zoning opposition will be helpful with the planning commission, although be warned that planning commissions are not as susceptible to public pressure as are City Councils.

After all, the planning commission is a body appointed by some elected official or grouping of them, and they do not have to be elected.

Typically your City Council is elected, and therefore is easier to influence through the strength of your re-zoning opposition. So certainly organize your group to have as many people as possible attend the planning commission meeting, but also forewarn your group that the planning commission is not as likely to respond to numbers as is the City Council.

You want your group to keep its enthusiasm even if the planning commission recommendation is contrary to what you want.

Preparing for the Zoning Public Hearing

If your neighborhood is small enough that you can canvass everyone and tell them about your re-zoning opposition and discuss the negative effects of the proposal with them, that will be great.

If you have time and energy for a meeting among yourselves, great. Getting together beforehand makes people more interested in and excited about the issue at hand than simply talking with them one-on-one. You need your group feeling highly motivated.

Only a motivated group will stay together long enough to overcome any feelings of discouragement if the professional advice is against your position and if the planning commission recommendation is contrary to your wishes.

Possible Changes as the Process Moves Along

Sometimes after the planning commission meeting, or even before it, the developer or other person seeking a re-zoning will contact your group to try to discuss the matter and reach agreement, or to "buy you off" by giving you something you want.

The proposal to change zoning may be altered substantially as it moves through the public hearing process, and this is perfectly legal in most cities. This is especially likely if the proposal is complex or if the planning commission recommends favorably only if modifications are made.

Watch for this possibility. Do not allow the core members of your re-zoning opposition group to appear uninformed about the current nature of the proposal; this makes it easier for decision makers to discount their input.

Organizing to Oppose a Land Use Decision

Prepare for the fastest possible timetable. Even though a proposal may appear quite controversial to you, it may seem routine to the decision makers, and they may not want to hold back on making a decision while you do your organizing work. In most jurisdictions, it is theoretically possible to complete a re-zoning in six to eight weeks.

That does not give you a lot of time, so concentrate on understanding the facts about your re-zoning opposition and the process you face as rapidly as possible.

Quickly identify one or two leaders from among your group, preferably people who are well respected in the community and/or well versed in real estate development matters. Designate these people as the chief spokespeople. Popular people in the community can really carry some weight.

Prepare everyone who will attend from your neighborhood to be smart about what is possible if the re-zoning is granted. Educate them about the re-zoning opposition process, and prepare them emotionally for the likely amount of time it will require of them. And the length of the whole process.

You do not want to "peak too soon," so that your group is tired of going to meetings just as you approach the final meeting, which is the most important one for decision making.

If you know or can learn any zoning principles, by all means take every opportunity to show off your sophistication. Some commissions and councils are a little intimidated when citizens actually know what they are talking about.

To Help Your Campaign:
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How to Fight City Hall

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How to Start a Petition

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Land Use Classifications

So dig into the zoning principles taught on this site. Look for the potential to call the re-zoning a spot zoning, one of the worst things a city can do in terms of legal defense.

Spot zoning is when comparable properties nearby are zoned differently, but the applicants are receiving a favorable zoning classification because they asked, or because they are being favored.

For example, look around to see if every other lot on a residential street is zoned residential, but for no good reason, someone is asking to have one of the lots zoned commercial. This would be a stereotype version of spot zoning.

On any commission or board, someone will have heard of spot zoning and know it's bad, so be sure to point it out early and often if this argument will bolster your re-zoning opposition.

Watch for Unpredictable City Council Actions

Even if you attend City Council, show up in good numbers, and go away feeling as though you surely will win, be sure to show an equal number of people at the next meeting if no vote occurred.

Sometimes a City Council will decide to postpone their vote, hoping that the people will forget to come to the next meeting and they can vote then with less public scrutiny. Keep going to meetings until the decision is final.

Even if the proposal is voted down, watch for the developer or other proponent of the re-zoning to resurface. Be sure you keep names, addresses, phone numbers, or e-mail addresses you may have accumulated during the re-zoning opposition campaign.

Sometimes a re-zoning proposal will recur with only slightly different facts, and you want your second round of community organizing to be easier than the first.

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