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How Zoning Came to Be

Ira Grossman takes a look at the history of zoning and how it's helped shape America's city skylines

Today, zoning is a key element of real estate due diligence. Surveys such as boundary surveys, ALTA surveys and Topographic surveys are used for almost all real estate deals to define property lines, and map all existing improvements and utilities on the property. In fact, my colleague Christopher Daniels recently wrote an interesting blog on this topic, you can read it here. A zoning report is a necessary component to secure financing, and can advise buyers and lenders whether a site complies with local area requirements and if current or planned uses and developments violate zoning codes.

The Zoning Code is a complex set of laws enacted by local municipalities and counties in unincorporated areas. The laws make up a land-use plan and stipulate where and how structures can be built. The normal admiration of these laws is through Zoning Boards, where individuals serve either by election or appointment and under the Code approve applications for development and property modifications. It also will review applications for variances to the Code for individual projects. The Board also may promote the creation of special use zones to attract businesses to its area. Zoning determines what a land owner can or cannot do with his or her land. But how did these rules come to be?

American Zoning in the Early Days

Urban zoning originated in 19th-century Europe as a tool for regulating land and building uses. The first American zoning code was developed in Los Angeles in 1909 as an effort to keep the industrial and commercial activities separated from residential areas. It was promoted in order that residents could maintain their property values. That same year, Boston’s law governing building heights was upheld in the Supreme Court, and by 1913 several states had passed laws allowing cities to control the location of industry. 

New York City’s zoning code in 1916 addressed not only the separation of uses but also the physical nature of the buildings that lined the streets.  At the time, new building techniques were allowing for taller and taller buildings, which shut out sunlight on the streets below. Upset residents demanded that the city control development to preserve light and air in city streets.   

The building that focused the authorities in New York was the 42 story Equitable Building, which, according to the New York Zoning code “Rising without setbacks to its full height of 538 feet, the Equitable Building cast a seven-acre shadow over neighboring buildings, affecting their value” and dropping its 13,000 employees on the already crowded streets at one time. This set the stage for the nation’s first comprehensive zoning effort.

Continue reading the GlobeSt blog here.