A zoning ordinance needs to be based on a comprehensive and detailed study of the precise local conditions, both present and prospective. What fits one city or town may be a bad misfit for another. There is no short cut to good zoning in any community through blindly accepting what has been done for another community. The only safe path is a thorough, open-minded examination of the facts in each community as to existing uses, existing densities, and heights of buildings, the customs of the people, and the trend of affairs. In every city there are citizens and organizations having in their possession valuable knowledge of local conditions. These have a large contribution to make to those responsible for zoning, although those who have lived their whole lives in a community do not necessarily realize all that is going on about them.
The zoning of a city requires expert professional knowledge just as the presentation of a case in court requires legal training. But just as the lawyer depends upon the layman to secure his facts, so must the professional zoning expert call upon the citizens for much of the accurate information upon which any good zoning regulations must be based.
The practice of zoning is relatively new in America. We are feeling our way and must learn by experience. Those who have had experience tend to become expert, with broader knowledge of practices that are proving effective. These men are becoming gradually more skilled in the methods of getting at the essential facts of any local situation and in the interpretation of those facts. If they possess insight and sane judgment, their advice becomes increasingly valuable.
A zoning ordinance consists of one or more maps dividing the city into different kinds of districts; and a statement of methods of regulation to be employed in each district in regard to the use to which property may be put, the height and size of buildings, and the amount of space to be left vacant, with adequate provisions for enforcement.
Certain points in procedure have proved themselves workable as practical steps for securing carefully drawn zoning measures, and ordinances so adopted are less liable to attack in the courts. These points are set forth in the standard enabling act of the Department of Commerce, with the aim of encouraging proper satisfactory measures well within the police power. The most important of them are:
1. Proper definition of the purposes for which zoning may be undertaken.
2. Uniformity of regulations for each class or kind of buildings throughout each district.
3. The appointment and functioning of a zoning commission.
4. The careful preparation of regulations with reference to the character of the district and its peculiar suitability for particular uses.
5. The holding of public hearings.
6. The method of changing the ordinance.
7. Rules for establishing a board of adjustment.
8. Provision for adequate remedies against violations of the ordinance.
In the process of drafting a tentative ordinance it is important, by means of full public discussion, to be sure that the ordinance is an "application of common sense and fairness" and will "provide each district, as nearly as practicable, with just such protection and just such liberty as are sensible in that particular district." It is essential likewise to be sure that public opinion, as a whole, will support it.
A zoning ordinance is of value only as it is properly enforced. Because of the difficulty in making with precision the forecasts on which it is based, its operation should be closely followed by those who most intimately understand the reasons for its provisions. Thus, improvements and adjustments may from time to time be made intelligently. It is to furnish in exceptional cases means for remedying possible injustice that, in the standard act and in some other state laws, provision is made for a board of adjustment or appeals.
It is obvious from the nature of the case that, even if a zoning ordinance were drawn with superhuman perfection, time and the natural growth of the community might show the need of modifications. The purpose of a zoning ordinance is not to stifle growth, but only to insure that instead of taking place sporadically and wastefully it shall go on in an orderly way, in response to generally recognized needs and with due notice to all concerned.