Entitlements. Fight or Follow [existing zoning] ?


Zoning can have huge implications on your costs and the development potential of your site. You as the developer likely want to maintain decent relationships with your governing municipality, so how do you decide when to accept what’s written, and when to fight for changes?

A quick overview: There are few places in which both intended and unintended consequences become more visible than in applied zoning codes. Most zoning was originally developed for the protection of public health from hazardous industrial uses. Over time layers were added to maintain basic safety, aesthetics, and general utility of growing cities. As a result some of today’s ordinances are more a product of the past than a proactive tool for a better future.

While there are many typical items subject to zoning and regulation, there is no one solution found consistently across the country. Unlike building codes that generally get updated based on our latest understanding on safe buildings, zoning varies widely, even within the US and inside any given state. We have worked in places with minimum versus maximum parking, towns that prescribe or forbid lawns, as well as ordinances that create huge demands for asphalt / paving while simultaneously adopting new stormwater management guidelines that make sealed surface areas hard to manage.   So how do you start?


  1. Vision: There are certain things that are inherent to your site, including most of its geological and geographical make up and the demographic  impact area. We recommend taking those into account when creating your initial vision for the site. What excites you about this place, what might it look like, what does a movie set in your new neighborhood or building look like?  What do you want this development to be known for? Find a few folks to kick ideas around with, question assumptions, and explore with, ideally people that have professional experience with places that inspired you personally. Note that this does not necessarily require detailed plans and completed proformas. However having some birds-eye level plans and numbers will give you clarity on what you are trying to do, as well as the motivation to go after it.
  1. Visit: As soon as you can articulate your first vision it’s time to visit your planning folks. Note that most should be eager to support development as it will likely have a positive tax impact. In preparation for this visit you should have a general understanding of how your vision compares to the existing zoning and any long term plans and growth policies. We know that staff can be different in different cases, but generally recommend starting out with the good will assumption that your planning staff will become your partners and supporters through this process. They get a lot of blame for things out of their control, and will likely appreciate a cooperative attitude.
  1. Venture: Time to play, dial in your vision and maintain some nimbleness as your project evolves and more stakeholders come into the picture. Lean / Agile techniques can help keep costs under control and minimize risks as you move forward, and we would love to be part of your team!

Sophia Sparklin

Growing up in a family with generations in medical practice, Sophia discovered her passion for architecture during an internship 1996. Since then Sophia received formal and informal education in Germany and the US. At Arizona State University she was honored by the Henry Adams Certificate for graduating on top of her (Master of Architecture) class in 2005.