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Avoid Spot Zoning To Be Seen as Fair

gray figures with one blue figure, symbolic of spot zoning

Spot zoning refers to applying a map classification for purposes of the municipal zoning ordinance to a particular parcel of land without regard to its surrounding designations. That's a bad thing, not a good thing.

Because the courts frown on it so much, neighbors who don't like a particular rezoning proposal are likely to throw around this accusatory term. Whether or not it's a spot zoning is always a judgment call, but it's a conclusion that the governing bodies of the city or county establishing the ordinance have to draw.

Examples will help. If you want to plunk down a commercial designation on a residential lot that is situated mid-block in a subdivision, that sure sounds like a spot zoning in almost all conceivable circumstances.

This practice occurs because people favor or dislike other people, or perhaps because the local planning commission and city council lack the courage to say no.

Now we will make our example harder. What if this is a development influenced by new urbanism and the mixed-use concept, and the proposed commercial lot is at the end of the block, instead of in the middle? In many cities corner stores are a traditional neighborhood layout.

What if there are architectural controls or urban design standards that would limit the mass, height, setbacks, and appearance of the building to the same standards that would apply to a house?

Since true new urbanist developments often are based on form-based codes rather than conventional zoning, that is somewhat unlikely. But if you had such an event, you wouldn't have a clear-cut case.

What Can You Do About a Bad Land Use Planning Decision?

If you think a poor planning decision is coming to your neighborhood, mobilize and organize your neighbors. That's the most effective thing you can do.  Final land use decisions and zoning decisions are almost always made by elected officials, and they are susceptible to pressure from citizens.  Learn as much as you can about the zoning of surrounding properties, any comprehensive or small-area plans that have been adopted for the property in question, and the history of land uses on the parcel proposed for rezoning.

I hope you're seeing this isn't a scientific or empirical concept that we citizens can demonstrate; it's subjective.

Why Do Courts React Negatively to Spot Zoning?

Courts rule against a scattered pattern of land use designations for two reasons:

• Fundamental fairness. One of the foundational truths of land use law is that equal properties should be treated equally.  Often in the case of alleged spot zoning,  the suspicion is that perhaps the person seeking the change is a friend of some decision-maker or is owed a political favor. Or perhaps just is an influential person around town.

• The strong legal nexus (connection) between land use planning and zoning. The ordinance is legally defensible to the extent it is based on good analysis and study of desirable future land use. When something looks so fishy that no reasonable planning commission would perceive it as a logical and desirable land use pattern, then the court may well say that's spot zoning.

When Rezoning Seems Contrary to Sound Land Use Principles

At the local level, when you hear talk about spot zoning, it may be simply a rhetorical flourish, or it may be a pretty fair summary of how most objective parties would view the situation.

The most important element to keep your local government legally defensible is to keep in mind that decisions should be based on logical and sound analysis rather than personalities, preferences, or property owners.

If everyone could have whatever zoning he or she wished as a property owner, there would be no purpose in having the regulation. It would be like one place where I worked, where supposedly in earlier times the zoning map was kept in pencil and people sneaked into the relevant office, erased the category abbreviation, and changed it to what they wanted. Those were the bad old days.

A town or city of any size probably needs zoning or a form-based code. In either case, fairness is of prime importance.

Also of Interest:

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