II. LAND USE ISSUES



A. Land Uses

    Human development impacts upon all facets of the environment.  While most apparent in urbanized areas, there is literally no place on the globe that does not bear some evidence of the impact of humankind.  Consequently, all new development and redevelopment must be undertaken with consideration of its resultant effect on the environment as well as on adjacent existing development.  The reality of this fact underscores the importance for planning and design principles and controls to insure compatibility and to minimize negative impacts as this development occurs.  While this may seem to be an obvious understatement it is not the mentality with which most growth has occurred in the United States.  However, as we will discuss at the end of this text, there is a steadily growing change in philosophy apparent in modern society that reflects a heightened awareness and concern for the environment.

    It may be instructive to begin by looking at the primary land use categories.  These encompass such basic functions as residential, commercial, industrial, recreational, institutional, and agricultural uses. There are some general characteristics of each of these uses that define their environmental impacts as well as potential compatibility issues.  Porterfield and Hall discuss the places or land where we live, where we spend, where we work, and where we relax (Porterfield and Hall 97-99).  This is a good way to characterize development, in terms of the major activities that occupy our day-to-day existence, and to which different parcels of land are devoted.  There are some commonalities of physical elements or facilities and the environmental impacts of the different land uses that manifest themselves in the resultant physical site planning and design development requirements within each use category.  We will also see that the tendency to separate each use within distinct areas or zones sometimes creates unnecessary duplication as well as some functional and environmental conflicts.  This speaks to the importance of comprehensive planning to ensure that individual decisions are made within the context of the “big picture.”

B. Land Use Relationships

    1. General Environmental Considerations and Compatibility Issues

    Any physical development is going to have some environmental impact.  The degree or extent of that impact is dependent upon such factors as the category of use, the intensity of the development, and the physical characteristics of the site.  For example, the construction of facilities (structures, pavement, etc.) on a site affects the surface permeability and hence increases the amount of surface run-off.  This can have an impact upon the water table and on adjacent and/or down-stream sites.  Site preparation may require removal of existing vegetation and always requires the regrading of the ground surface, sometimes dramatically, to accommodate the development.  This, in turn, may increase soil erosion, stream sedimentation, and disrupt the natural character of a site and its surroundings.  Removal of vegetation may also expose a site and its surroundings to wind and sun from which they were previously protected.  Disruption of natural site patterns may also have an impact upon wildlife habitats.  The kinds of physical changes mentioned above may also result in significant visual impacts upon a site and its surroundings.  The aesthetic response to these visual impacts may be very instrumental in the acceptance of or resistance to new development within its surrounding context.

    The range of land uses is as extensive as human experience, covering residential, industrial, commercial, and recreational activities.  The nature of particular land uses suggests a greater environmental impact for some than for others, at least in respect to certain criteria.  For example, industrial site facilities can usually be expected to require more extensive site development than many forms of residential development.  On the other hand, different uses, such as certain types of recreational facilities, may be assumed to be low-impact.  This may be somewhat misleading however.  In some cases a park development may impose a greater impact upon the environment than a residential or a commercial facility by virtue of its demand, from sewage treatment, to traffic generation, to its impact on air and water quality.

    Most land use controls consider compatibility in establishing land use districts.  However, the focus frequently is on suitability of adjacent uses to each other, rather than on the environmental compatibility of the given land use.  There are some ordinances that do delineate environmentally sensitive areas such as steep slopes, flood plains, coastal zones, ridgelines, woodlands, or conservation districts.  Development options are based upon the limitations imposed by the particular physical properties or conditions.

    2. Legal Mechanisms

           a. Comprehensive Plan

    A comprehensive plan is a written and graphic document that serves as a guide for community growth.  It provides the basis for policies and regulations affecting growth and establishes a framework for long-range planning.  Although specific requirements vary from one state to another, since it frequently serves as the legal basis for land use controls, the comprehensive plan must include certain components.  For example, the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (P.L. 805, Act 247) specifies that a comprehensive plan include “a statement of goals and objectives, land use and housing plans, a circulation plan, a community facilities plan, a statement of the interrelationships between the various plan elements and with surrounding communities, and a discussion of implementation strategies” (UPT Comprehensive Plan 1).

    This language reflects the key elements that Steiner, among others, identifies as essential for the comprehensive plan to be effective.  It must consider the broad social, economic, political and environmental issues.  It should address issues of policies and strategies by which they might be implemented.  It must also provide a graphic indication of the proposed spatial organization of that implementation (175).

    The end result of the process of developing a comprehensive plan is, as the Upper Providence Township document states, “ a blueprint for the future” (97).  Through its implementation, the jurisdiction will be able to meet the goals and objectives outlined in accordance with the specified plan and strategies.  An important cautionary reminder however, is that it is not a static document.  Since conditions and issues are constantly changing, the plan must be reviewed and updated frequently to reflect the current needs and situation.
 

        b. Land Use Controls

    The term land use controls refers to restrictions on the use of land by the property owner for the common good.  Traditionally, such restrictions may be imposed through either common or statutory law actions.  The former is essentially a reactive, case by case response driven by very specific circumstances.  For example, the common law concept of nuisance is defined as “an unreasonable interference by one party with another’s enjoyment of his or her land” (Wright 17).  The operation of a company may result in air or noise pollution, diminishing the value of a neighboring parcel.  If the neighbor takes the offending company to court, the result might be an injunction of the offending activity or monetary compensation to the neighboring property owner.   This is a response to a specific set of circumstances.  Legislation and regulation on the other hand provide a more formal, encompassing approach.  In this particular instance, zoning would likely separate the incompatible land uses, precluding the offending impact from arising in the first place.

    Land use planning implies an orderly process by which the use of land within a municipality, a county, or some other jurisdiction is regulated.  To be effective, land use planning should be based upon a comprehensive plan, which we have defined as long-term studies of the jurisdiction, considering broad social, economic, environmental, and political issues.   The land use controls (e.g., zoning, subdivision regulations, etc.) are the legal mechanisms by which the patterns of human growth and activities are directed.
 

1). Zoning – Zoning is a form of police power which is delegated by the states to local governments through enabling legislation to ensure the welfare of the community by regulating the most appropriate use of the land.  In many states a comprehensive plan is a legal prerequisite for a zoning ordinance.  Accordingly, the comprehensive plan will delineate where different land uses or activities are currently located within the community and where they are projected to be located in the future.  The zoning ordinance is the mechanism by which new development is controlled as growth occurs.  As such, zoning is a classification of land uses that limits what activities can or cannot take place on a parcel by establishing a range of development options.

    The traditional concept behind zoning is to separate potential conflicts among incompatible land uses.  There may be a variable number of zones designated as part of the zoning ordinance, depending upon the size and complexity of a given city or jurisdiction.  Typically, the zoning ordinance will include the following categories of use: residential, commercial, industrial, office, public/institutional, and agricultural.  There may be several subcategories as well such as detached or attached residential zones of various size or density or heavy or light industrial uses.  Each zone is regulated by a number of conditions in addition to use including density, or physical restrictions such as height, area coverage, parking requirements, screening, etc.  In addition, as indicated above, there may be zones based upon environmental conditions such as open space, flood plains, and steep slopes.

     Zoning can be a valuable tool for directing and controlling growth within a community.  However, for it to be effective there needs to be an element of stability or consistency.  Some criticisms have been directed to the political vulnerability of zoning and the ease with which variances or spot zoning may diminish its potential impact.  A variance is permitted when an “unnecessary hardship” would result to the property owner unless a land use is allowed that varies from those permitted under the zoning regulation.  Spot zoning refers to the situation arising when an amendment is proposed to a zoning ordinance, modifying its application to a particular property.  The court’s rather strong support in linking zoning to a comprehensive plan has diminished some of this concern over stability since it validates the importance of the larger context and how community objectives have a greater impact than those addressing individual parcels of land.  When utilized as a tool for achieving planning goals rather than serving as the plan itself, zoning has proven to have positive merit.

    We should also make some reference to the growing use of restrictive covenants .  These, also known as deed restrictions, refer to private land use control mechanisms that supplement or even replace zoning regulations.  They are often employed in new housing developments as a means of providing property value protection for adjacent landowners by placing restrictions on the use of property.  When a person purchases a piece of property, he or she agrees to certain restrictions in terms of what can be done with that property.  The restrictive covenants may provide more stringent requirements above those imposed by the zoning restrictions.  For example, covenants might place limitations on the density (e.g., only single family detached units in a zone allowing attached housing) or they might increase the building set back lines beyond the zoning limits.  Covenants may also be included as a means to enhance property value protection requirements.  E.g., they may specify minimum building square footage requirements, limitations in terms of acceptable construction materials, or specifications on architectural styles.  They may also be used to address environmental protection issues, relating to amounts of grading allowed, acceptable fertilizers, well and septic requirements, vehicle storage, etc. Legally, they must be diligently overseen to be effectively enforceable.  In essence, restrictive covenants require “self-policing” by the members of the community to whom the deed restrictions apply. Often this function will fall to a design review board as a separate entity or part of the homeowners’ association.

2). Subdivision and Land Development Regulations – Under enabling legislation local governments also have the authority to establish regulations to control the subdivision of a parcel of land into building lots for specific land uses.  The subdivision process actually entails dividing a parcel of land into blocks, lots, streets, open space, and community use areas.  The purpose is to protect public interest by maintaining a level of quality control, justified on the basis that the development will increase the cost of public services.  To that end, the subdivision and land development regulations establish requirements or specifications for streets, sidewalks, utilities, driveway connections, etc. to ensure that all of the necessary improvements are made according to a municipal plan and in accordance with municipal construction standards.  For example, the streets within the subdivision must be consistent with the municipal master street plan.  The streets must be constructed to specified widths, cross-section configurations, paving materials, curbs, storm sewer standards, etc.  Similar kinds of specifications for public utilities must also be met.  These requirements protect the entire municipality as well as the potential property owner within the subdivision or land development.

Subdivision regulations provide for a structured process of approval that generally includes the following steps:

1. A preapplication stage where the developer and planning staff discuss the proposed development to check if all the requirements are met
2. A preliminary plat, often prepared by a landscape architect, registered surveyor, or engineer, is submitted to the planning agency
3. The planning commission and/or agency reviews the preliminary plat and approves or denies it (If  denied, the agency so notifies the applicant by noting the defects and citing the appropriate provisions of the ordinance).
4. Most subdivision regulations next require that the developer construct the improvements specified in the preliminary plat (usually within a specified time period, frequently three years).
5. A final plat, which is sometimes two documents:  an engineering plat and a plat of record, is submitted for approval
6. The approved plat is recorded (Steiner 254)
3). Design Review - Another level of local control is the design review board, which is typically a board of citizens appointed by an elected official under the authority of a local ordinance for a fixed period of time.  The design review board reviews proposed development projects on the basis of specific standards which must have been established in advance.  Traditional review may be for purposes of aesthetics, historic character, environmental quality, etc.  Specific qualities that may be addressed under those purposes may include building height, architectural styles, materials, orientation, view preservation, etc.


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