How to learn to interpret zoning code?

technical manual

When I interned as a planning intern for the Town of Moraga, I learned about current planning and the development review process.

Part of a planner’s role is to help applicants (i.e. homeowners, business owners, developers, etc.) who want to build a new project or open a business in the city know what is permitted in a particular parcel or zoning district.

Usually, the city council or planning commission had passed these zoning regulations, so these regulations are a result of a public process that took place when the city first incorporated. Any amendments, additions, or changes to the zoning code after the incorporation of the city also have to go through this public process.

So, essentially, if a person wants to do a project that may not necessarily meet the zoning code: (i.e. the design of the building is too high, the business might attract too much vehicle traffic, the business is not a permitted use stated by zoning code), a planner’s job is to work with the applicant to help meet the code, or if the applicant wishes to keep their project, have it go through the planning commission (a very lengthy process) for approval.

Berkeley’s undergrad urban planning program is known to be very theoretical. There are no courses for undergraduates on development review (you might get know the process exists, but that’s as far as we go). Meaning, this is a topic that is never covered in our classes. I just discovered a few days ago that Cal Poly CRP has a undergraduate course just on Land Use Law:

CRP 420 Land Use Law – 4 units

Public controls protecting natural environmental systems. Land use and environmental controls. Review of control mechanisms. State and federal legislation. Legal implications of controls, public planning and policy issues. 4 lectures. Prerequisite: CRP 212 and upper division standing, or consent of instructor.

Having a course specifically on land use law helps a lot. For me, I had to learn all about municipal code and zoning all on the job, and thus had a higher learning curve. Cal Poly CRP students have the benefit of getting this exposure in school, and once they start working in municipal planning, can easily get their feet wet. 

However, for those who did not graduate from a program like CRP, how do you get better at interpreting zoning code? One shouldn’t spend their time memorizing code. Some tips I gathered, and am still working on:

  • Draw an example of a development that meets or does not meet municipal code: This is a skill that does not get emphasized in planning school, for some reason. Because urban planning deals heavily with the built environment, I think one should practice drawing a project so they can practice communicating what is permitted and what is not in a particular land use.
  • Explain a particular zoning application process to a friend: A lot of times, friends assume urban planning is equivalent to playing SimCity. You can help debunk this myth by talking about a development review process that you or a co-worker took on with your friends. This will help people understand simple things like, “Why can’t we build more housing in San Francisco?”
  • Practice writing emails to applicants helping them understand what aspect of their project needs to be modified to meet the zoning requirements: Much of zoning has a strong legal basis to it. Thus, it’s really important to be good at writing and communicating zoning law – this practice will make it easier for you to talk about municipal code as you build up your career in the planning profession.

Land use law can seem very archaic to most of the public. By practicing this process, it will help you become more knowledgeable about zoning law, and will help you get better at interpreting complex projects over time.

Assistant planners usually start out with the simple projects (i.e. home remodeling), because they are still getting their feet wet over the local city’s zoning code. As you gain more experience and become more comfortable interpreting local zoning code, you will be able to take on more complex projects (housing developments, new office buildings, etc.).