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Land Use Versus Zoning

Calling all advocates for an inclusive, equitable, accessible Atlanta! The City of Atlanta is in the process of updating our Comprehensive Development Plan, which will greatly impact the City’s ongoing Zoning Rewrite process. We need educated engagement in this important process, which will determine our City’s future land use and zoning.

Are land use and zoning the same thing? Nope. While confusing, this isn’t complicated. But it does require some explanation.

Background (skip ahead if you’re not a history nerd)

In 1926, the US Department of Commerce issued one of the most influential city planning documents of all time: The Standard State Zoning Enabling Act. This document granted states the power to enact zoning ordinances “for the purpose of promoting health, safety, morals, or the general welfare of a community.” It also required that “such regulations be made in accordance with a comprehensive plan.”

A few years later in 1928, the same Department issued The Standard City Planning Enabling Act, which defined elements of the comprehensive plan. According to the document, “the plan shall be made with the general purpose of guiding and accomplishing a coordinated, adjusted, and harmonious development of the municipality and its environs which will, in accordance with present and future needs, best promote health, safety, morals, order, convenience, prosperity, and general welfare…”

All that to say: if a municipality has Zoning, they are required to first have a Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP). So, what is a CDP?

CDP Versus Zoning

Comprehensive Development Plans are about the future of the city. They set long-term, city-wide visions and goals and lay out pathways (policies and strategies) to achieve these goals. There are state minimum requirements for CDPs, including the requirement that they be updated every 5 years. Additionally, the city’s access to federal and state funding for things like economic development, affordable housing and infrastructure are tied to state CDP requirements. Importantly, CDPs establish future land use for every parcel of land in the city. Future land use is not about what exists on land today, but about what the city believes should happen on the land in the future.

Zoning, on the other hand, is about what can happen in the city today. Zoning is a legal tool aimed at implementing the goals and land use plan established with the CDP. It consists of a Zoning Map (identifying zoning districts) and a Zoning Ordinance (the rules and processes found in each zoning district). Zoning tells us what we can develop on a particular property: typically including use, form, scale and design regulations.

Every parcel of land has a land use (established by the CDP), and a zoning district (established by the Zoning Ordinance). Zoning is tied to land use; the zoning district of a parcel of land should theoretically be consistent with the underlying land use. For example, a residential zoning district is not compatible with an industrial land use. Atlanta’s Land Use Compatibility Table illustrates which zoning districts are compatible with each land use. Please be aware that the city is currently riddled with conflicts between land use and zoning. 

Single Family Residential Land Use

Changing zoning often requires changing the CDP (known as a land use amendment), to ensure compatibility. Changing a land use designation can vary in terms of degree of difficulty, but there is one land use that is typically the hardest to change: Single Family Residential (SFR). This is by far the most restrictive land use as it only allows, you guessed it, Single Family Zoning (one house per lot). 50% of the city is currently designated SFR. Single Family Residential land use is the core component that needs a rethink as part of the current CDP update. 

What’s the issue with SFR land use? This category is the epitome of exclusivity, restricting 50% of our future city to low density, single-use development. We’ve spoken at length about the issues of single-family-only zoning: it limits housing choices, artificially constrains housing supply and drives up costs, creates car dependency, increases infrastructure costs and reduces tax value per acre. This restrictive land use approach greatly hinders our ability to make vibrant places and achieve equitable, inclusive and accessible communities: core goals outlined in our CDP.

Vibrant places are made up of a compact mix of uses that promote walkability, diversity and adaptability. Atlanta once had this. We like to remind people that Atlanta’s core city was built before zoning was invented. Even when Atlanta first adopted zoning in 1929, the regulations did not include Single Family zoning. Rather, it included “Apartment Districts” and “Dwelling House Districts,” both allowed in Residential land uses. The Dwelling House District allowed for single family homes, duplexes, ADUs, and home businesses (including explicit permissions for doctors, surgeons, and dentists to operate out of their homes). While we’re not looking to have surgery in someone’s living room these days, the flexibility and adaptability expressed here is critical for a changing and growing city. It should be noted that while the 1929 ordinance was more inclusive in use and built form, it was by no means intended to be inclusive when it comes to race and class. 

In 1952, Atlanta formally adopted Single Family Zoning. It is no coincidence that the areas of the city developed after 1952 (think NW and SW Atlanta) have a very different urban form than the core city. And in 1982, the last time we had a comprehensive update to our zoning ordinance, Atlanta adopted the Single Family Zoning districts that we have today. These districts were applied to our existing neighborhoods, many of which existed long before the idea of one house per lot became mainstream. Today, 64% of our city consists of Single Family Zoning. Further, over 1/3 land within ½ mile of a MARTA station or the Beltline is Single Family Zoning.

This restrictive, exclusionary approach to land development has no place in a city that strives to be equitable, inclusive and accessible. While SFR may be appropriate for the more suburban parts of the city (think areas with large lots, disconnected streets and no sidewalks), it is highly inappropriate for the core of the city. Our traditional neighborhoods in the core city have the greatest access to quality transit, jobs, services and amenities. It stands to reason that these areas should be the most inclusive and accessible. But this will remain impossible so long as these areas have a SFR land use designation.

Atlanta CDP Update

Atlanta’s CDP (Plan A) was last updated in 2021. One major shift in the latest iteration was the incorporation of The Atlanta City Design (ACD) work. The ACD is an amazing vision document aiming to realize Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea of the Beloved Community. Plan A aims to take the goals of ACD and translate them into a usable framework for the future.  Any and every proposed change to the current CDP should be viewed through the lens of how it advances (or hinders) the goals of ACD. 

So we have to ask: how is keeping 50% of our city designated as Single Family Residential land use advancing the goals of the Atlanta City Design? How is SFR land use “promoting health, safety, morals, or the general welfare of a community”? When we limit how much housing we can build, we limit who can have access to housing. When we limit development by transit, we limit who can have access to transit. Spoiler alert: it’s going to be whoever can pay the most. Is that in the best interest of our City? Is that helping us create the Beloved Community?

So what’s the alternative? We need a Traditional Neighborhood land use category that allows what we used to allow: a mix of housing choices (single family homes, duplexes, ADUs, and small apartments) and neighborhood-focused services (corner stores, small offices, coffee shops, etc). And we need this land use to be allowed throughout neighborhoods, not just on major streets at the edges. And we especially need to allow this near transit! If we hope to see zoning that allows these things, we first have to ensure we have a compatible land use that allows them. That’s why this process is so critical.

Where specifically would we recommend this land use? To bring it back to the Atlanta City Design, Growth Areas and Urban Conservation Areas make the most sense. These are already developed areas that are suitable for growth due to their proximity to transit, jobs, services and amenities.

The City of Atlanta is about to launch a public engagement effort as part of the CDP update.  Hopefully, this post provides some context and framing around these issues before you attend to make your voice heard for a more inclusive, attainable, and vibrant Atlanta. 


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