Are parks in a separate zoning district?

by Suzanne

Visitor Question: We are redoing our comprehensive plan in our town, and I am helping with some of the outreach to our residents. I wanted to know if parks can be in a separate zoning district. At our most recent workshop, one table of residents included some people who live next to a big park, and they were hoping that a specific zone just for parks would help the town figure out a way to deal with some of the problems they were having. Is this common or even legal?

Editors Reply: All zoning questions are local in a way, but because most zoning codes share common characteristics, we can give generalized answers here on this website. To answer your specific questions, no, it is not common to have a zoning district that allows only parks, and yes, it would seem legal to do so in almost every state and probably every state in the U.S. For a definitive reading on legality, you would need to work with the town attorney to discover any state law or legal precedent from courts that might cast doubt on such a zoning district.

We should add that it is common for older zoning ordinances and their maps to include a category that is called Open Space. This district might include both public parks and private playgrounds or green spaces owned by homeowners associations or subdivisions, as well as wildlands such as local, state, or federal forests, wilderness areas, or conservation areas. Sometimes the category open space is thought of as indicative of areas that provide habitat, so cemeteries sometimes are grouped under this heading also. Of course, depending on actual land uses in your town, the practical effect of creating an Open Space district might be that only public parks are included. If your town wants to use the zoning ordinance as a way of managing parks and problematic behavior or situations within them, that is probably your best bet. We discuss our reservations about this approach below.

Another possibility is that the ordinance might provide for a zoning district that might be called Public Facilities, Public Uses, or Public Lands. These might group everything from city hall to a city-owned cemetery to parks and conservation areas under one zoning district. However, those zoning districts would be unlikely to add the layer of regulation that some of your citizens apparently would like to see.

Now let's go beyond those answers to address the overall premise of the question a bit more. Rather than looking to zoning to solve park problems, it would be much better to tackle those issues directly. For instance, if the issue is drug use in the park, work with the police department to identify the culprits and try to catch them in the act of possessing or using an illegal substance, and work with your parks and recreation staff to add creative programming that will attract positive activity.

If the issue is noisy groups of young people congregating in the park after hours, your town could consider a noise ordinance or even a temporary or permanent curfew for certain age groups. However, it is probably more feasible and enforceable to close the park at a certain time in the evening with gates or other barriers. Most of these can be defeated by determined people, but the establishment of a posted formal closing time does at least establish the potential for a trespass charge if they are discovered in the park after hours.

Perhaps your town faces the common problem of litter accumulation in the park. Again you could try an anti-littering ordinance, but that is way too tedious to enforce usually. A better approach may be to mount the semi-annual cleanup day and specifically work to recruit volunteers from the demographic profiles of the folks who are doing the littering. (See our page on cleaning up a neighborhood park for practical help on how to organize these events.) Somehow a clean environment invites park visitors to pick up their own litter. Of course another helpful bit is to make sure that trash cans are reasonably prevalent and convenient; it is also crucial to assure that they are emptied in a timely manner.

If the issue is homeless people hanging out, well, you must get busy on ending homelessness in your town. Yes, this is a major project if your homeless count is very high, but it's a worthy project that will attract a whole range of social service agencies as well as those who want to protect parks.

By now you can probably see that we think that the presence or absence of a specific zoning designation for parks is a minor part of the solution to any problem concerning parks. Many other tools and ordinances available to the town are much more promising. We encourage your residents to think about forming a park "friends" organization, or even a friends organization for a specific problem park. Such a private nonprofit corporation or informal club will invent many strategies to deal with whatever problems your parks present.

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