What is zoning, and what is a “rezoning”?
Most communities have adopted zoning policies and maps that help to guide development and growth by indicating the types of land uses that are allowed in different parts of town. Zoning policies may identify areas intended for residential development, commercial use, manufacturing and industrial purposes, parks and recreation, or some combination of these and other land use categories. In residential zones, these ordinances also specify allowable densities (how many homes may be developed per acre) and whether attached and multifamily homes may be built.
In many communities, it is difficult to meet the demand for housing within the land area currently zoned for residential use. When the market is not able to respond to demand by producing more housing, prices typically rise, making housing less affordable for working families and others. To meet this challenge, some communities have rezoned commercial or manufacturing areas for residential use, allowing supply to better respond to demand. Other communities have increased allowable densities within existing residential areas to similarly increase development opportunities.
What problems are solved by rezoning?
While requests to rezone individual lots  or issue a variance may be successful in allowing individual projects to move forward, securing these approvals can be a lengthy process that often involves a great deal of uncertainty and adds substantially to total development costs. Large-scale rezoning that allows new homes to be built in appropriate areas not currently available for residential development or increases densities in existing residential areas may enable sufficient increases in the overall supply of homes to accommodate demand and moderate home price pressure. Some communities also choose to build in an inclusionary zoning requirement or other affordability policy to ensure that working families can benefit from the new homes made available as a result of the zoning changes.
Where is rezoning most applicable?
While some communities revisit their zoning maps on a regular basis, others have not conducted a comprehensive review of their zoning policies in many years. Without regular updates, these policies can quickly become outdated, reflecting land use needs and priorities from an earlier period rather than addressing current conditions and anticipating future growth. As a result, a surplus of land may be reserved for manufacturing and industrial jobs that have since been relocated, or residential areas that have the infrastructure to absorb higher-density development may remain zoned at low densities.
Solutions in Action
Photo courtesy of ULI Development Case Studies
Elm Brook Homes is a 12-unit suburban infill project located in historic Concord, Massachusetts. While the land had previously been rezoned to allow for residential development, the developer also obtained a zoning amendment allowing increased density and other allowances not permitted by the underlying zoning code.
Visit the Gallery to learn more about Elm Brook Homes.
Even when zoning maps are not outdated per se, they still may not allocate land as effectively as needed to accommodate growth, functioning as a constraint on the availability of land for residential development and contributing to high home costs. Through rezonings, communities that have not recently revisited their zoning policy, or that receive a large volume of requests for variances and individual exceptions to existing land use regulations, may be able to substantially increase the land available for new homes.
Learn more about rezoning to expand the supply of homes
Go back to learn about other policies that expand development opportunities
 Rezoning an individual lot to allow an otherwise prohibited land use is a practice that is sometimes called “spot zoning.” Spot zoning has been found illegal in some courts, on the basis that the new use is incompatible with existing zoning regulations and land use plans for the area. For more details view the article Understanding Spot Zoning. Winter 1994. By Richard C. Widner. Planning Commissioners Journal 13.