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Flexible Zoning for the New Economy

January 1, 2022 by admin
Policy/Legislative

Brant Birkeland, AICP.

Manager, Ogden City Business Attraction.

 

Zoning has always been a critical factor in business location decisions but will be even more so as we collectively emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Why? As we’ve heard over and over, the pandemic has accelerated trends that were likely five to ten years away. This is true for business and the economy as much as any aspect of our lives. E-commerce, remote work, ghost kitchens, reduced capacity, fewer employees per square foot, hub and spoke, and many other business models and practices emerged or accelerated since early 2020.

Most zoning ordinances are at least 20 years old, in some cases 50 years old, and never envisioned the types of businesses that have accelerated over the past 2 years (or past 12 years for that matter).

So, what’s the problem? It is common practice for zoning codes to say something to the effect of: “any uses (business) not listed in this zoning code is prohibited….” or maybe “approval of any use (business) not listed in this zoning code is subject to the discretion of the zoning administrator…”  Additionally, most zoning codes base intensity requirements such as required parking and size of the building based on models and factors that never considered the changes that we have witnessed recently. For example:

  • One-size-fits all parking: A restaurant that only offers takeout and delivery might be required to provide the same amount of parking as a restaurant offering in-house dining.
  • Lack of flexibility in commercial uses: A company that 3-D prints specialty components may be considered a “manufacturing” business under a traditional zoning code and would be jettisoned to an industrial park, rather than filling in a chronically vacant downtown retail space.
  • Barriers to adaptive reuse: An adaptive reuse of a commercial building to housing might be shelved due to a lack of on-site parking, or one of a handful nonconforming features.

Many codes allow (and require) for interpretation of the code by the zoning administrator or other city official. Because zoning codes are essentially a snapshot of the moment in time they are adopted, interpretation and flexibility are required to address changes and innovation in the economy. As is human nature, communities aren’t necessarily looking for opportunities to exercise flexibility. This fact is amplified by the heightened criticism of all land use decisions – no one wants to risk the backlash of an outside the box decision.

Unfortunately, many land use regulations were dated before the pandemic, and with the acceleration of trends in business and in life spurred by our response to Covid, these codes are even more obsolete. It is the responsibility of business, government, and community stakeholders to establish a regulatory framework that will allow communities and local economies to thrive coming out of the pandemic and beyond into our “better normal.”

 

 

Adaptive reuse of vacant big box in Ogden, now home to MicroGem COVID test assembly, distribution, and operations center. Opening Winter 2022.

 

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