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APA Utah News & Events

Changing the Rules of Zoning

April 1, 2022 by admin

This article was first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Building Santa Fe, Jan 15, 2022

by Kim Shanahan

The first time I heard “Euclidean zoning” as a member of Santa Fe’s Planning Commission in 2003, I assumed it was an ancient principle. After all, Euclid was the Greek mathematician from Alexandria, Egypt, who published a textbook called The Elements around 300 B.C. He was considered the father of geometry.

Since zoning is about drawing lines, I can be forgiven ignorant associations from dim memories of a sophomore math class. But no, Euclidean zoning came from a Supreme Court decision after the village of Euclid, Ohio, was sued by the Ambler Realty Co. in 1922.

Ambler owned land it wanted to develop for industrial uses. The village had zoned the property for residential development, which Ambler believed diminished the property’s value. The company sued the village under the 14th Amendment, claiming a government “taking” without due process. The Supreme Court decision of 1926 upheld the “police powers” of the village because it had been acting for the health, safety and common good of the community.

Yea! A win for the people!

Whether it was a win is still debated. Modern American zoning started in Los Angeles in 1904 when the city banned “wash-rooms and laundries” in neighborhoods. Sounds innocuous and like the good aspects of Euclidean zoning, which keeps the hog farm out of the neighborhood and polluting industry on the outskirts of town. But in 1904 Los Angeles, the laundry prohibition was to keep Chinese residents out of white neighborhoods.

The popularity of such discriminatory zoning, before it was called Euclidean, swept the country — particularly in the South, where Jim Crow laws and Confederate statuary were springing up everywhere. Those new zoning ordinances were explicitly racist and fostered banks’ “redlining” practices that refused to underwrite mortgages in Black neighborhoods.

One might think the Supreme Court decision of 1917 in Buchanan v. Worley would have prevented such explicit racism. That case ruled that Buchanan, a white man in Louisville, Ky., could not be prohibited from selling his home to a Black man. Subsequent adoption of racist Euclidean zoning by Southern cities found the workaround.

Instead of explicit race banning, cities adopted density zoning — bigger lots with fewer homes per acre effectively kept out undesirables. Those people were most often nonwhite. And if that didn’t work, neighborhoods could adopt private covenants. It’s true a city’s police powers can’t enforce those private covenants, but they can look the other way, and they did. And do.

Euclidean zoning, the benchmark for almost every community in America except Houston (which famously had no zoning laws), has worked to keep one-house-per-lot neighborhoods intact and other uses out. What could be wrong with that? Well, it perpetuates sprawl, prevents higher density and is explicitly discriminatory.

The fight to change zoning codes is gaining momentum both in Santa Fe and beyond. The recently approved revised master plan for the final phase of development in Tierra Contenta is an example of a shot across the bow for city planners. It has turned rules that proscribe a maximum number of lots per acre on its head to say some tracts will be zoned for a minimum number of lots per acre. That means if a developer wants to build townhouses at 12 per acre on a property presumed for only five, the higher density is automatically allowed.

This is a paradigm shift.

If it wanted to, the city could adopt such zoning everywhere, even in existing neighborhoods. It certainly ought to be allowed in future neighborhoods, such as the 288 acres the city owns and is intent on selling in the northwest quadrant.


Kim Shanahan has been a Santa Fe green builder since 1986 and a sustainability consultant since 2019. He is recognized as a national expert on Green Building Codes after 35 years of general contracting in Santa Fe, New Mexico. With a career spanning hands-on remodeling, luxury custom homes, and affordable housing subdivisions – all encompassing the best thinking in sustainable construction practices—he is well-suited to understand the complexities of 21st century homebuilding. He also writes a weekly column for the Santa Fe New Mexican real estate section titled Building Santa Fe.

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