A Little About Zoning

Hand holding a question mark card over a zoning map.
Zoning can be confusing. But a couple key terms can help you corner the concepts

Zoning has been in the news again lately. I wanted to post some background and detail on some of the relevant terms and concepts you may hear about in the media or online discussions around town.

Zoning codes are a little different than your run-of-the-mill city ordinance. Zoning is built upon a system of terms that consistently relate to each other, so you can use them to construct coherent land use rules. These rules define the types of "zoning districts" property can have ("how the property is zoned"). Given an assigned zoning district, a property's use is regulated according to the rules of that zoning district.

For example, for a single-family zoning district (R-1), land use is restricted to single-family homes on a given property. Indeed the term "single-family dwelling" is defined in the city code. In the zoning district definition for R-1 (technically R-1a and R-1b as we have larger and smaller single-family lot types), we specify that there can be one primary dwelling of a particular size with two (large and small, resp.) detached accessory structures of specific maximum sizes, on a lot with a minimum size and dimensions.

Anyone who owns a property with a given zoning designation is free to build according to the zoning rules for that designation. Being free to do something according to the zoning restrictions is known as being able to do it "by right." That is, you don't need special government permission aside from building inspections to do what you want to do with your land.

Some Important Zoning Terms

The following terms occur frequently in zoning discussions. This is what they mean.

Zoning District: A type of zone. Some examples are R-1a, R-1b, R-2, R-3, R-4, C-0, C-1, etc.

Parcel: A piece of property. Also known as a "lot."

Rezoning: Understood as changing the zoning district of a parcel.

Upzoning: Rezoning a parcel so that its new zoning district will be less restrictive than what it currently has. For example, changing a single-family R-1 parcel to a duplex R-2 parcel.

Downzoning: Rezoning a parcel so that its new zoning district is more restrictive than it currently has. For example, changing an apartment R-3 lot to a single-family R-1 parcel. You could build single-family or apartments in R-3, but in R-1, you can only build single-family.

By-Right: Also known as "as of right," it means that a given use is granted under an existing zoning rule, and the property owner is free to use the land in this way without discretionary approval or input/objection from neighbors. Building a single-family home or accessory structure on a single-family lot is an example of a by-right use. Other examples are playsets, having pets, chicken coops, fences, gardens, and many other things listed in the code.

Missing Middle Housing: The "missing middle" is a term coined by city planners to describe the types of housing that aren't possible to build in a current zoning regime because none of the zoning districts allow it. Generally speaking, it exists on the spectrum of housing between duplexes and low-rise apartments. You can read more about this concept here.

Many of these terms have seen frequent use in the PV land-use reform discussion. Feel free to reach out if you have questions on any other terms!

In a subsequent post, I'll explain how these concepts apply to some of the work the city is doing and some petitions you may have heard about.