Elisabeth Haub Law School of Law
Pace University
Land Use Law Center
Supervisor: John R. Nolon, Distinguished Professor
Blog No. 37 of the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
Editor: Brooke Mercaldi
Contributing Author: Meg Byerly Williams [*]


Low Carbon and Resilient Land Use: Part 2


The effects of climate change occur at the local level: storm surges, flooding, wildfires, extreme heat and drought. These all threaten homes, lives and livelihoods, and local governments respond to these threats by adopting policies, plans and regulations to help make safer places for their residents. As described in Choosing to Succeed: Land Use Law & Climate Control, local governments derive their legal authority to control land use from state planning and zoning enabling acts. These laws authorize local regulations that encourage the “most appropriate use of land,” which includes more than just zoning; municipalities also use this authority to adopt floating zones, overlay zoning, special use districts, planned unit developments and a host of other legal tools that help localities shape settlement patterns in a way that most benefits their communities.

Drawing heavily on this land use authority, local leaders have responded and adapted to climate change by adopting low carbon land use strategies that help their residents and businesses reduce energy use and carbon emissions from buildings and vehicles. Choosing to Succeed catalogs a variety of local examples of low carbon land use. A Marin County, California, land use regulation requires new residential development to meet energy efficiency standards that increase with development size. This regulation references California’s 2019 Building Energy Efficiency Standards, which include photovoltaic standards; energy efficiency improvements for attics, walls, water heating, and lighting; and alignment with the ASHRAE 90.1 2017 national standards.

To reduce carbon dioxide emissions associated with transporting energy from generation plants to points of consumption where people live and work, Pittsburgh’s smart city project created a grid of microgrids that interconnect and incorporate existing district energy systems, and zoning for Pittsburgh’s Uptown Public Realm District requires structured parking to include site features such as connection to the “smart/micro-energy grid.” Pittsburgh’s code also requires buildings publicly financed through tax increment financing (TIF) to meet certain sustainable development requirements, which include distributed energy systems, such as micro-grids, that deliver electricity and thermal energy nearer to consumers.

Local governments also can adopt land use regulations that encourage renewable energy systems to further reduce emissions associated with energy consumption. For example, Butte County, California, amended its zoning code to allow alternative energy structures. For both solar and wind energy, the regulation permits four types of systems that differ based on system size. Permitting requirements vary by system type, requiring larger systems to adhere to more requirements, such as decommissioning, warning signage and noise control requirements.

To protect the vegetated environment that sequesters carbon emissions, municipalities can adopt land use regulations that protect green open space. Knox County, Tennessee, amended its zoning code to adopt its Open Space Preservation Zone that protects existing open space, park and recreation lands, wilderness areas, beach and shoreline areas, scenic routes, wild and scenic rivers, historical and archaeological sites, watersheds and water supply areas, and wildlife and their habitats. Development within these areas must adhere to standards outlined in the County’s open space plan.

In addition to promoting energy-efficient development, renewable energy and open space preservation, local governments can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by adopting land use regulations that create transit-oriented development around train stations to encourage people to reduce their use of personal vehicles in favor of walking. To encourage transit-oriented development, municipalities can amend their zoning around mass transit to allow mixed uses, including a range of residences, retail, offices and personal and civic services, as well as denser development that supports transit. For example, Yonkers, New York, rezoned a former industrial area to facilitate Hudson Park, a multifamily residential development adjacent to the Yonkers Metro-North train station that includes over 750 apartments and over 18,000 square feet of retail and office space. Hudson Park greatly lowered its residents’ consumption of fossil fuels and per capita water use, among other benefits.

Similarly, municipalities without access to mass transit can employ transit-efficient development by strategically amending zoning for certain neighborhoods to increase their development density and allow mixed uses, creating more vibrant spaces for pedestrians and paving the way for future transit opportunities. Choosing to Succeed: Land Use Law & Climate Control describes transit-efficient development and these other low carbon land use strategies in detail, presenting an array of land use tools local governments can employ to help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

For additional resources, the Gaining Ground Information Database is a free resource featuring best practice models used by governments to control the use of land in the public interest. Please direct your search toward the Healthy Communities topic.

[*] Meg Byerly Williams is a ’10 graduate of the joint degree program of the Elisabeth Haub School of Law (JD) and the Yale School of the Environment (MEM). She is In-house Counsel at Skeo Solutions, Inc. where she serves as a regular consultant to the Land Use Law Center. She also serves as the Ex Officio Member of the American Planning Association’s Divisions Council Executive Committee and is Editor of the APA Planning and Law Division’s Case Law Digest.

Brooke Mercaldi is a second-year student at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and Land Use Scholar in the Land Use Law Center.

The previous blogs in the series are listed here:

  1. Reframing Sustainability: Introducing the Land Use, Human Health, and Equity Project
  2. Planning for Public Health: A New Beginning for Land Use Law
  3. The Role of Density in Combatting Climate Change and COVID-19
  4. Novel Coronavirus Claims Implicate Age-Old Property Rights Questions
  5. State & Local COVID-related Emergency Powers: Individual Rights
  6. COVID-Related Land Use Regulations and Judicial Deference
  7. Mediation of Eviction Disputes May Hold the Key to the Survival of Small Businesses
  8. Using Zoning to Help Eliminate Food Deserts: A Few Steps Forward
  9. Urban Heat Islands and Equity
  10. Urban Heat Island and Equity: What Can Local Governments Do?
  11. The Recovery Lease: Preventing Evictions of Commercial Tenants During the Pandemic
  12. The Role of Hazard Mitigation Planning in Promoting Public Health and Resilience
  13. Hazard Mitigation Planning: A Case Study
  14. Complete Streets: Protecting Public Health
  15. Zoning and Lease Mediation as a Way to Retain Critical Small Businesses
  16. Segregation by Law and the Racial Inequity Pandemic
  17. Combating Food Swamps to Improve Equity and Public Health
  18. The Pandemic Plan for Healthy Buildings
  19. Remediating Distressed Properties to Improve Public Health
  20. Housing, a Crucial Determinant of Health
  21. ADU Introduction
  22. NIMBY Restrictions to Poison the Prospects of Accessory Dwelling Units to Address Housing Insecurity
  23. Zoning to Fill the Missing Middle Housing Gap
  24. Old Tools to Fight Housing Insecurity: Adaptive Reuse and Infill Development
  25. Racial Impact Analyses
  26. A New Era of Equity-Based Comprehensive Planning…Finally
  27. Equity-Based Comprehensive Plans: Land Use Policies to Correct Past Disparities
  28. Reversing the Legacy of Redlining: Reducing Exposure to Toxins and Pollutants Through Land Use Law Reform
  29. Addressing the Four Pandemics – A Case Study
  30. Health Impact Assessments: A New Tool for Analyzing Land Use Plans, Zone Changes, and Development Projects
  31. Putting the “e” in TOD
  32. The Four Pandemics Explained and Addressed by Land Use Law and Policy
  33. Gentrification: Remedies and Consequences
  34. What is Climate Gentrification and Why is it Different?
  35. Using Supportive Housing to Address Homelessness
  36. Low Carbon and Resilient Land Use: Part 1


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