Zoning evolves to meet tech, trends

South Carolina cities and counties use zoning to achieve the land use vision laid out in their comprehensive plan. The objective of zoning is to balance an individual’s property rights with the community’s need to promote a healthy, safe, moral and orderly environment. Since a community’s vision changes over time, its zoning must also be fluid and adapted to new growth and development needs.

In 1916, New York City passed the first zoning law in the country, regulating the shape of skyscrapers. And today municipalities continue to face trends and challenges in modern zoning that require them to protect the integrity of their communities while staying friendly to businesses.

As technology changes, zoning ordinances have been forced to keep up. Ordinances are regulating things that did not even exist a decade or two ago, said Shaun Greenwood, assistant city manager for the City of Cayce.

For example, if a municipality has not updated its zoning code since the 1990s, its code probably has nothing to address digital signs. There also are new businesses such as hookah shops and e-cigarette stores.

In today’s sharing economy, it is not uncommon for multiple businesses to work from one location in a coworking building. Questions can arise about parking spaces or signage for those businesses. Old ordinances would regulate a certain number of parking spaces for a business. But if multiple businesses share a building, and one is only open at night while the other is open in the daytime, does the ordinance still require enough parking spaces for two businesses? A standard ordinance from the ’90s would say so, Greenwood suggested.

"Changing times and changing types of businesses require getting away from templates that we used in the early ’90s," Greenwood said. "By keeping the ordinances updated and minimizing gray areas, it greatly reduces the dependence on staff interpretations and the opportunities for mistakes."

How to manage sprawling communities is another challenge that municipalities must consider. The cost of growth, and specifically how to finance capital improvements to serve a growing population, is a challenge the Town of Fort Mill faces, according to Planning Director Joe Cronin. It’s also difficult attempting to balance residential and commercial growth, and the issue of a moratorium has been a hot topic in Fort Mill and in other rapidly growing communities, he said.

Affordable and workforce housing (the average new home permit has been about $375,000 to $400,000 for the last few years) and planning for an aging population are other issues that Cronin cites. The town recently brought online a new 730-home, age-restricted Del Webb subdivision. Cronin also reported a lot of interest in new age-restricted, age-targeted and continuum of care development.

Staff training, too, must keep pace with growth and technological changes.

Officials must fulfill continuing education requirements each year, and the SC Chapter of the American Planning Association is working to modernize the training and offer it in a web-based format.

Overall, municipalities and counties are trying to do more online to streamline their zoning and permitting processes, according to Ernie Boughman, president of SCAPA and regional office director for Toole Design Group. In most communities, the paper plans that once covered a planner’s desk have been replaced by digital versions where planners can type comments to developers.

Many city councils have placed an emphasis on development approvals moving at a quicker pace, and cities are streamlining the process and moving to customer-service based offerings to allow developers to make one stop, Boughman said.

Planning and zoning trends will continue to change as the public’s needs and wants shift.

Today communities are encouraging the development of mixed-use spaces, where residents can walk to work, restaurants or shopping. Public transit and walking and biking paths are very important. Planned developments with walking trails and land set aside for libraries and schools also are becoming commonplace, Boughman said.