Codifying Sustainability

Many Zoning Ordinances Fail to Address Contemporary Concerns

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Anna Haines is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Julia Noordyk is water quality and coastal community specialist at the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute.

Kate Morgan is water policy director for 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin.

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Posted: Wednesday, October 21, 2015 3:00 pm

Local zoning codes might not be on the radar of some sustainability supporters, but they have a surprising amount of influence over which projects can be completed.

In many communities, development codes haven't kept pace with the times, according to presenters at the 8th annual Growing Sustainable Communities Conference held recently in Dubuque, Iowa.

In a study of 32 cities of various sizes, University of Wisconsin Professor Anna Haines found that most city zoning ordinances had little support for sustainable development. Large or small, coastal or central, most of the communities studied by Haines and her colleague Edward Jepson didn’t have much in their regulations that was useful for supporting sustainability principles. This isn’t surprising, since most of the ordinances were written long before sustainability became a household word.

“The city that I live in wrote their code in 1979,” Haines said, so it’s not very surprising that it doesn’t address sprawl, peak oil, floodwater control or other contemporary concerns.

“Almost 100 years ago is when the first zoning codes were put in place -- New York City was the first,” she said. “And at that time the purpose was to strictly separate uses, to separate industry from housing, which made a lot of sense at the time, but doesn’t so much anymore.”

Haines’ study began by identifying nine principles of sustainability:

  • Encourage higher-density development.
  • Encourage mixed use.
  • Encourage local food production.
  • Protect ecosystems and natural functions.
  • Encourage transportation alternatives.
  • Preserve/create a sense of place.
  • Increase housing diversity and affordability.
  • Reduce the use of fossil fuels/encourage the use of fossil fuel alternatives.
  • Encourage the use of industrial by-products.

Going from the abstract to the concrete, the study then assigned several specific regulatory areas to each principle. For example, if the goal is to encourage high-density development, the corresponding zoning regulations might address:

  • Infill development, or building in open areas of existing developments, rather than moving away from the city center to undeveloped outskirts
  • Maximum lot size or minimum net density
  • Purchase or transfer or development rights
  • Support for residential development on small lots

Defining the terms in this way made it possible to study the zoning ordinances of a range of cities from across the United States, in sizes varying from 8,000 residents up to 400,000.

Haines found the best support for sustainability in the areas of encouraging mixed use, protecting ecosystems, and encouraging transportation alternatives – though even in these categories, there were items (such as building units in which people can both live and work) that didn’t get good regulatory support.

High-density development has even farther to go. In fact, rather than imposing a maximum lot size, many cities required a minimum lot size.

“If you have a development with a two-acre minimum lot size, that’s pretty big – that’s going to result in sprawl,” Haines said.

What can be done to put zoning and sustainability on the same side? Sometimes it takes a disaster to persuade cities to make needed changes.

Kate Morgan, water policy director of the environmental group 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, and Julia Noordyk, water quality and coastal community specialist at the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, told attendees what they learned from putting together a program to examine and improve zoning and building codes in the wake of the immensely destructive Duluth Solstice Storm of 2012.

“In 2014, we surveyed planners about their greatest hazards and their greatest needs,” Noordyk said. In the Great Lakes region, stormwater was by far the greatest concern. But the greatest need was a surprise: “After the obvious need for updated flood maps, the next thing planners told us they needed was assessment of zoning and building codes.”

In developed areas, stormwater doesn’t only damage buildings and endanger residents; it also increases erosion, washes off topsoil, carries industrial and agricultural chemicals into rivers and lakes, and creates “plumes” of sediment that destroy the habitat of fish and wildlife.

The sustainable approach to mitigating this damage is through green infrastructure – development that aims to manage floodwater where it falls, from simple roof gardens and permeable surfaces to restoring forests and wetlands. But codes and ordinances can make these structures difficult.

“There are a lot of barriers to green infrastructure, and they reside at the local level,” Morgan said. “And if you can’t act locally, how can you think globally?”

But communities rarely have the resources to give their codes and ordinances a thorough audit. The 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin “envisioned a project identifying code revisions that would lead to improved water quality and water mitigation,” Morgan said.

It’s not simply a matter of “Yes, you can,” or “No, you can’t.” In studying codes, the team found a range of language – specific rights, specific prohibitions, partial limits, practices mentioned with no guidelines for implementation.

What lessons did they learn in their efforts to create better codes and get them accepted?

First, understand the context. The consultancy group studied the local culture, looking for existing organizations (such as beautification committees) that could be advocates. It also examined the community’s history with green infrastructure.

“One bad project can ruin a community for green infrastructure!” Morgan said. “You’ll hear, ‘We had a couple of permeable pavement projects fail; we don’t want to talk about permeable pavement at all.’”

Second, make it easy to see results. The 1,000 Friends used a modeling program called WinSLAMM to demonstrate the results of their proposals.

“We identified a code that we really wished they would modify, and then we identified a parcel of land that we could model that code's adoption upon,” Morgan said. Showing a model that demonstrated how stormwater runoff could be reduced or eliminated by the use of rain gardens, green alleys, and other forms of green infrastructure, “had the engineers sitting up a little straighter.”

Finally, communication and teamwork are key.

“We started in the Menominee River Watershed, where work was already in progress,” Morgan said. “They already had a dialog among themselves.”

And they continued to build on this dialog in each of the 28 communities they worked in.

“Some of our nonprofit friends and colleagues asked, ‘Why is it taking so much time?’” Morgan said. “We looked at it as: these are our colleagues. If we come to the table together, it takes time to develop that relationship, but this is not a one-time relationship. Each project builds trust.”

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