Why is zoning important
I'm curious about why zoning is important in small cities. Wouldn't people make good decisions by themselves without zoning laws?
Land use zoning probably isn't the only way of making sure that people don't make ill-advised decisions about where to locate certain businesses or even residences. However, since the 1930's it's been the standard mechanism in the U.S., and most cities seem to be staying with it.
The reasons that good land use guidance is important can include preserving property values that might decline if someone pops an undesirable business down in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
The regulation of matters such as setbacks (meaning the number of feet from a street or an adjoining property line that must be maintained free of structures) helps with a solid urban design. Two homes inappropriately close together in a neighborhood where there is some real room to roam around each house would tend to detract from the neighborhood and therefore property values.
Given the major amount of effort that goes into establishing zoning regulations and a zoning map in the first place, and then into debating small changes to the regulations and map changes either initiated by the property owner or the government, your real question could be: is zoning worth the effort?
That's an interesting question indeed, because even where zoning is in place, zoning decisions aren't made in a vacuum. Politics can influence the decisions, in the sense that elected officials may be afraid to go against popular demand. In smaller towns especially, popularity of the person applying for the zoning change often influences whether it is granted.
And sometimes the rezoning is inappropriate when it is influenced by these outside factors.
Even if that doesn't occur, suppose the zoning ordinance (law) itself isn't very well crafted, or that conditions in society have changed and the ordinance didn't change with the times. Then zoning can have unintended consequences and actually prevent economic development, flexible provisions for affordable housing, and other things that are good for your community.
So what are the alternatives to zoning? The new one arising from the architectural community is called form-based code, and as the name implies, it relies on regulating building placement and building characteristics rather than the activity that is going to happen inside the building.
Another alternative is simply to reply to private deed restrictions. Houston is the largest American city not to employ zoning as its primary land use control. A deed restriction means that a property owner, such as the person who owns the land before it is subdivided, makes binding restrictions on future owners of the land. So a builder of a residential subdivision could prohibit any future owners from commercial development, for instance.
Judging by the frequency with which this website receives requests for information about how to change deed restrictions, not all future owners are happy with this system, let's just say. But it's an alternative.
So: zoning is important only for those who want the most tried-and-true system of preserving property values by prohibiting inappropriate land uses and encouraging appropriate neighboring uses. Communities needing greater flexibility should look instead at form-based codes. In rural situations where shared values are strong, zoning often is of no importance.