As we approach zoning’s centennial in 2016, the Land Use Law Center at Pace Law School is examining what is durable and what is deficient in land use regulation today.   As times change, zoning must renew itself by adjusting to changing conditions. Among the many challenges it faces at the dawn of its second century, is the alarming water scarcity experienced by arid Western states with fast-growing economies. The Center is working with Western Resource Advocates (WRA) to train local land and water planners in the front range of the Rocky Mountains how to coordinate water and land planning, particularly how “zone in,” that is to permit and encourage,  water conserving land use patterns, buildings, and landscapes.  The following text is adapted from a technical guidance manual that the Center is preparing for WRA on this challenging topic.

 Zoning Strategies for Water Conservation

 Since zoning should conform to the local comprehensive plan, such plans in water scarce communities must endorse permitting water-efficient land uses in development zones, discouraging water-consumptive developments in conservation zones, and regulating all new development to create landscapes that conserve water. The critical task for the comprehensive plan is to delineate priority growth districts within the community where more water-efficient forms of development should occur and conservation areas where development should be shaped to discourage and minimize water use.

 Large lot, low-density, and dispersed development increases water use per household, in some cases by over 100 gallons per household per day. Nationwide, lawn care alone accounts for an average of 50 percent of household water use and large-lot, single-family zoning yields large lawns.  In arid areas where rapid population growth is occurring, there is simply not enough water to sustain the level of water use created by this type of zoning, which in many communities predominates. By prescribing mixed-use, compact, higher-density development in priority growth districts, zoning sets the stage for significant water savings through a strategy of water-smart growth.

 Additional benefits of concentrating development in priority growth districts include:

  • These types of denser developments create a smaller urban footprint per household, which reduces impervious surfaces and surface water runoff, limiting flooding and minimizing the pollution of lakes, rivers, and streams and groundwater.
  • More compact development also allows for shorter water transmission systems, lessening the cost of water and sewer infrastructure, reducing leak loss potential, and reducing energy needs for pumping and pressurization.
  • This development pattern, when focused on filling in already developed areas,  leverages ratepayers’ investment in existing water delivery systems and other infrastructure.
  • Higher-density and mixed use development can be designed to increase walkability, lessen car dependency, save transportation costs, and lower air pollution.
  • Such development accommodates changing demographics with a higher percentage of smaller, more urban-oriented households who are not interested in large-lot, single-family living and whose interest in mixed-use, transit oriented, walkable and livable urban neighborhoods is increasing real property values in areas that, coincidentally, are zoned to conserve water.

 Zoning Options

There are three options for communities to consider for approving these water conserving land uses in designated zoning districts:

1. As-of-right uses: Traditionally, zoning districts permit certain land uses as of right; uses that cannot be denied unless they fail to meet standards contained in the zoning ordinance for each zone. In priority growth districts, zoning can be adopted that permits as-of-right several types of land uses that achieve water conservation: higher density, single-family homes on small lots, attached town houses, small-scale and large-scale multi-family housing, and mixed-use developments.

2. Conditional uses: Zoning also traditionally singles out some land uses that are allowed in designated zoning districts on the condition that they are compatible with the surrounding neighborhood; these are called conditional uses and permitted by the issuance of a special use permit. Any of these water-conserving land uses can be designated conditional uses and allowed, subject to more intense planning commission review and the imposition of conditions that ensure that they are appropriate in the neighborhood.  In existing single-family neighborhoods, for example, small lot attached homes or small multi-family housing can be permitted as conditional uses, which gives the planning commission an opportunity to review each project more carefully and to impose specific conditions to mitigate any adverse impact of the project on the surrounding neighborhood.

3. Flexible zoning techniques: Where even more care must be taken in rezoning areas, there are several other zoning options to consider that provide great flexibility in fostering water conserving land use patterns:

  • rezoning governed by development agreements,
  • planned unit development zoning,
  • floating zoning,
  • cluster development,
  • bonus density zoning,
  • overlay zoning, and
  • zoning that prescribes landscaping features that greatly reduce water use.

Which of these options should be chosen depends on a number of factors, including the current land use pattern and types of buildings in the community. The pattern of development fostered and types of buildings allowed by zoning must respect the current architecture and land development of the community and build gradually from that base.  The biggest factors to consider in permitting new development are density, the utilization of present infrastructure, and the cost of needed additional infrastructure. Local decision-makers can be very flexible on building architecture and types, but greater density is the key to water-conserving zoning.