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Breaking Down Urban Zoning For Development Projects

Jason Hammond July 10, 2023

Developing a project takes a significant amount of time, effort and research to ensure the development happens without a hitch. And usually, the most strenuous aspect of developments is the city regulations set up through land use permits and zoning.

However, knowledge is the key to overcoming these obstacles. A good land use attorney can chart a path through zoning and land use, making it more likely that the system will work in their projects’ favor.

The significance of zoning and zoning regulations

Every single city across the United States follows land use regulations and zoning laws because it allows local and national authorities to control land and property developments to optimize land use across the city. It allows local government officials to either stimulate or slow down development in certain regions, depending on the region. There are strong implications of these regulations on developers as they must work with city officials and other planners to ensure successful progress for their project.

Understanding land use in the city limits

Before purchasing any land for your upcoming development, you need to know how the land use categories affect your location and the type of zone your project falls under. The most common urban zones include:

  • Residential – these projects can include single-family residences, suburban homes, and any type of apartment, duplex, condominium, and co-op. These zones often have smaller subsections classified by population, environment, and type of development. In Oregon, it’s common to see a separate category of mixed-use developments that are a mix of residential, commercial, and recreational uses.

  • Commercial – these developments are usually relating to business use, such as office buildings, shopping centers, hotels, and certain warehouses. But there are often subsections of these zones, similar to residential zoning.

  • Industrial – these projects focus on factories, warehouses, and shipping yards. Industrial zoning is distinct from commercial since it focuses more on industry and environmental concerns for its land regulations than commercial properties do.

  • Public use – this category is typically associated with areas that are public facilities like hospitals, schools, churches, and municipal buildings.

  • Recreational – These are pieces of land set aside for parks, golf courses, open spaces, athletic fields, playgrounds, and swimming pools.

City planners must consider all these land uses as they develop the zoning for a specific city and any urban development you want to accomplish.

A breakdown of zoning for Oregon cities

The types of zones depend on the city and the current regulations it enforces. For example, Portland passed legislation in 2019 to remove specific restrictions on single-family housing zones. The new rules allow developers to build up to four units on a lot that recently only allowed single-family homes.

The most crucial types of zones to pay attention to are base zones, overlay zones, plan distracts, and additional use and regulations. The base zones are all your standard land uses spread across different areas in the city. Imagine residential, commercial, and industrial zones.

Over your base zones are overlay zones. For example, an overlay zone may focus on design and neighborhood character over in a particular region. Hypothetically, this can work over any type of base zone.

Along with these zones, the city often uses plan districts that have additional regulations that are specific to a large project. These plans are usually years in development and work in phases, so city officials are hesitant to allow any additional work that could inhibit these plan districts.

Finally, there can be additional uses or development regulations that apply in certain areas, such as school uses or parking lots that require additional regulations for their locations. Special uses and conditional uses are examples of this type of regulation.

There is a hierarchy of these zones as they interact with one another, and when there are disputes over land uses, the city follows this hierarchy to determine the resolution:

  • Plan district regulations impose another layer of regulation over overlay zones and base zones. They also control the allowed size of new parcels and lots.

  • Overlay zones add to the requirements of base zones and land division.

  • Plan districts and overlay zones take priority when confronted with conflicting regulations for specific use and developments under the additional uses or development regulations.

These are just general rules, so it’s best to consult with an attorney to determine how your specific project would fall in these zones and where the best location is based on your specific plans.

Moving your project forward with permits

Once you review the regulations for your project and consult with your land use attorney about the best land for the development, you may have to seek special permits to address rules that may otherwise create barriers due to unique zoning regulations.

Commercial developers usually must seek land use permits, including:

  • Subdivision and land partitioning permits

  • Planned residential and commercial development permits

  • Variances and conditional use permits, usually for a specific exception to an existing zoning requirement

  • Nonconforming use permits, which allow an existing property to contradict ordinances (usually adhering to its original land use regulations)

  • Exceptions to Oregon planning goals

  • Any industrial or environmental permits

All these permits allow developers to work with strict guidelines to find a safe way to develop in the city.

Working within these zoning regulations and permits is a necessary component of the project process. It could easily push project milestones months behind schedule without the proper attention and dedication to permit applications.

Do not wait to start investigating the permits and zones of your project area. You can always prep ahead with government officials and city planners in order to attain the best results for your specific goal.

With more than three decades of experience, we have a deep understanding of how regulations can intersect with land use issues and development projects, such as express easements. For a consultation with our Portland office, call or email us directly.