A Brief History of Zoning

May 27, 2011 by Brad Lingvai

Regardless of whether you work in the real estate development world or just own a home, you’ve most likely been affected by a municipality’s zoning regulations.  Typically, municipalities utilize zoning as a tool to regulate land use by placing restrictions on private property.  Such regulations may limit building height, specific uses, setbacks, impervious cover, and other elements which ultimately form a zoning ordinance.

The legal basis which allows a municipality to place such restrictions upon private property stems from the concept of “Police Power”.  The formal definition of Police Power is;

The authority conferred upon the states by the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and which the states delegate to their political subdivisions to enact measures to preserve and protect the safety, health, Welfare, and morals of the community.”

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to analyze a municipality’s zoning regulations, you typically find that they are all put into place and enforced to protect the safety, health, and welfare of the community.

To understand the current state of affair with respect to zoning, one needs to analyze the issues that have paved the way historically.  With the Industrial Revolution taking shape in the mid 1800’s, immigration and urbanization was thriving.  Cottage industry rapidly changed to factory production which required a large workforce.  The urban rail line offered immigrants a low cost, efficient mode of transportation while tenements provided cheap housing.  Tenements maximized development on extremely small parcels while providing minimal standards to say the least.  During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, immigrants were cramming in to tenements like the one shown below which, in many cases, had no running water, electricity, or sewage facilities.

Typical Tenement Interior
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A typical tenement building was 7 stories tall, 25-feet wide by 75-feet deep, constructed on a lot that was 25-feet wide by 100-feet deep.  The interior was laid out in a “4-pack” with a central staircase to provide access to each floor.  It was common for 7 or more people to occupy a space totaling + 350 square-feet.  With these extremely crowded and unsanitary accommodations, health concerns were inevitable.

Tenement Located at 97 Orchard Street NYC (Lower East Side)
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Other emerging technologies at the time which contributed to urban density were the invention of the elevator and steel frame construction.  Building heights up to 60-stories were now achievable.  They were often built vertical with no lot line setbacks casting large shadows on adjacent buildings and streets below.  In conjunction with the sanitary issues associated with crowded tenements, lighting and fresh air were now concerns of the residence that inhabited these structures.

In effort to protect the Health, Safety, and Public Welfare; New York City enacted what might be considered the first modern zoning ordinance drafted by Attorney, Edward M. Bassett in 1916.  Mr. Bassett (coined the Father of Zoning) created a comprehensive zoning ordinance which established land use districts, height regulations, and ground cover & minimum lot size standards.  In addition, building heights were established by a multiple of adjacent street widths and setback as were required as the height increased.  The effect of the aforementioned zoning requirements can be seen in New York today as shown below.

Although, similar height regulations can be found in Austin’s zoning ordinances, it is the protection of watersheds and natural features such as Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer that are at the top of Austin’s priority list.  The Austin Tomorrow Plan, Drafted in 1979, set forth a comprehensive plan and a list of goals in effort to sustain fragile environmental features that make Austin the great place that it is.

Have questions related to land development?  The Principals at BIG RED DOG have extensive experience dealing with land use and entitlement issues within the City of Austin, and surrounding municipalities throughout Central Texas.  Whether you’re interested in re-zoning a site, or need assistance with the site development process, we encourage you to contact BIG RED DOG Engineering | Consulting to see how we can help you make your project a success.

Written by Brad Lingvai

Brad Lingvai

Mr. Lingvai is the Commercial Services Market Leader in the BIG RED DOG Austin office. He is also a co-founder of the firm and has been a leader on hundreds of central Texas projects since the founding of BIG RED DOG in 2009. Austin-area projects of note that have benefited from his expertise include Belterra, Waller Creek, the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport (“Mueller”) redevelopment project, and The Domain shopping center. He has extensive experience with design and coordination of water, wastewater, and drainage studies and systems, water quality and detention ponds, and conceptual layouts of gas, electric, and telecommunication lines. Mr. Lingvai received his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from the The University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA) and is registered as a Professional Engineer in the State of Texas.