The following was written for Inside Sources, and published on May 11, 2016. The piece was nationally syndicated in media outlets across the US. You can read the original here.
With the rise of the New Urbanism movement, traditional land-use zoning has come under attack. In some instances, these condemnations of the practice of controlling land use are justified. Zoning has been used to foster racial segregation, as well as contribute to sprawling development patterns many in suburbia are accustomed to.
… But zoning isn’t the problem — it’s the application of the practice.
What many seem to forget is that zoning, like a hammer and the nail, is merely a tool for policymakers and urban planners to use — in capable hands, it is an essential function of local government to balance growth, protect the environment and preserve quality of life. Within Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties, the smart application of zoning has played a critical role in fostering regional water protection, as well as preservation of farmland and open space.
By using data-driven urban planning efforts that stay above the pressures and lobbying of the real estate industry and political back room dealings, zoning can be a powerful asset in helping residents shape the future growth of their community. Problems arise only when zoning is abused by those who do not understand the implications of misusing the tool. With each variance that is granted in a patchwork fashion, the balance and stability of land uses in the community is disrupted.
This is why it’s essential that municipalities foster the creation of professional planning departments that adhere to the standards of the profession, not development buzzwords or trends being propagated by industry insiders and the well-connected.
Comprehensive planning should be regional in scope, and local in implementation — as such, residents and involved stakeholders should help drive any planning effort that sets local zoning. The goal is to have a diversity of backgrounds and opinions form a unified vision and direction to take the community while assessing on-the-ground needs and the realities of allowing or prohibiting growth.
While many argue for market-driven land-use policy, we cannot trust the private sector to account for the limitations of the public sector’s infrastructure. More important, we cannot trust the market alone to assess the overall effect pursuits of economic development have on the environment. Developers are in the business to make money, as is their right, not foster sound public land-use policy. That responsibility lies with local governments, professional planners and the residents they serve.
As suburban sprawl was poised to consume every open acre on Long Island in the 1960s, residents, policymakers and planners came together to put into place zoning controls to make the growth more manageable. The end result was the preservation of hundreds of thousands of acres of land that preserved farmland, open space and environmentally critical parcels.
Zoning on Long Island has played an integral role in the protection of the region’s drinking water — after comprehensive study determined that development had a detrimental effect to water quality in aquifers that supply freshwater to residents, stringent land-use controls were put into place to ensure protection of the valuable resource in coming decades. The market didn’t protect drinking water and farmland — but sound planning and the smart use of zoning did, so much so that other areas across the country followed Long Island’s lead.
It should not be the public’s responsibility to mitigate the effects of a private development project that doesn’t take into account the traffic capacity of a main arterial roadway, or the wastewater impacts on a nearby river. Land-use policies are a function of the public sector, which ideally puts public benefit above the pursuit of fiscal gains, and professional planners have the know-how to assess, mitigate and anticipate the effects of increasing density and growth.
If properly managed, zoning reflects the needs of both the community, as well as the marketplace. When the development industry drives the process and local governments bow to the pressure, zoning fails.
Worthwhile public policy isn’t formed by industry insiders, but on the ground assessment, public input and professional analysis.