Americans have a long tradition of considering the ownership and enjoyment of property to be free of government intrusion, but what happens when the choices and actions of one property owner have an impact on the value of another person's property, or another person’s enjoyment of their property, or on the local government’s ability to attract new business?
Since the 1920s, the courts throughout the United States have recognized that governments can impose reasonable regulations on the use of privately owned land. While some people still bristle at this notion, most people recognize that when a person creates unsightly blight that others have to look at, or use their property in ways that create unreasonable noise, odors, lighting or creates a threat to the safety of others, it is reasonable for the local government to step in and stop the nuisance behavior.
Local governments focus considerable attention reviewing plans for new development to prevent problems and conflicts before they materialize. Land use regulations protect the overall appearance of the community, protect the natural features that residents value, and help minimize the cost of local government services.
Local governments exercise land use authority through local planning and zoning.
A master plan guides the overall direction of where land uses are most appropriate by considering local and regional assets, needs and opportunities, as well as development patterns driven by market forces and infrastructure improvements.
A zoning ordinance is a township law establishing land development districts and regulating land development. In suburban and rural areas where the dominant intent of zoning is to protect the value and use of private residences, zoning often focuses on segregating incompatible land uses. This objective is also common in other, more dense communities, but in recent years planning experts have moved away from primarily focusing on land use segregation and have, instead, returned to land use practices that were popular in the 19th century, such as mixing residential and commercial land uses to promote more walkable communities and fostering more social interaction. “New urbanism” emphasizes shared open spaces, homes built closer to sidewalks with alleys and smaller yards, and building apartment lofts above storefronts. Form-based codes are also growing in favor that focus on more on structure exteriors and arrangements and less on the activities within the building in denser communities.
Placemaking is another emerging set of activities that build on existing assets in rural and urban communities to create more economically competitive and resilient communities. This is done by focusing on public and private improvements that make an area more attractive to new residents, talented workers, and new businesses. Rural and urban communities that work together on regional placemaking projects have the potential to make the entire area more competitive for jobs in the global New Economy.
Michigan State University’s Land Policy Institute and MSU Extension offer classes for people who want to learn more about the principles and practices of land use decisions, especially for members of a local government’s planning commission. For more information, click here.