Last month, my colleague Christopher Knarr and I presented a webinar for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors (“PSATS”) on the importance flexibility in zoning ordinances. When we put the presentation together in early 2020, we expected to be speaking in person at PSATS’ annual conference. Obviously, COVID-19 changed those plans. The economic impacts of the virus, however, only made our topic timelier.

From national retail chains to local restaurants, every day seems to bring a new headline of another business closure. Even in industries that have remained strong throughout the crisis questions remain about how we will define the “new normal.” Are large office complexes a thing of the past? Can companies reduce their physical footprints (and thus their overhead) by allowing employees to continue to work remotely even after the threat of the virus have waned? And, if we do continue to meet in virtual spaces rather than physical ones, what will happen to the restaurants, retail stores, and offices that we once occupied?

If the last few months have taught us anything, it is the importance of being adaptable and willing to respond to constantly shifting social and economic conditions. As we look to redevelop and repurpose the spaces that COVID-19 has rendered obsolete, flexible zoning and land use regulations will be an important piece of the puzzle. In that spirit, below are a few suggestions about how to implement flexible zoning regulations in your municipality:

-Create flexible zoning districts and overlays. By reducing and consolidating the number of base zoning districts, municipalities make regulations less confusing and allow for better planning across municipal boundaries. Also, consider the overlay not only as a tool to impose additional regulations on certain types of land (for example, tracts within an airport or floodplain zone) but as a way to provide development bonuses where growth is needed.

-Consider mixed-used districts. Mixed-use districts allow for greater ingenuity and flexibility, particularly when redeveloping existing buildings. Regulations that contain residential maximums or commercial minimums give developers greater flexibility while still ensuring that community character is protected.

-Re-define dimensional standards. Carefully consider whether the dimensional standards in your ordinance are promoting desired development. Consider allowing setbacks for infill development to match surrounding lots. Evaluate impervious coverage requirements- with today’s stormwater regulations, often it is the ability to manage stormwater that controls the amount of development that can occur on a particular site regardless of the amount of impervious coverage permitted by the zoning ordinance.

-Re-think parking requirements. Empty parking lots were a common sight during the stay-at-home order, but even as businesses begin to re-open, over-sized and under-utilized parking lots still appear to be the norm. By eliminating parking requirements, or by giving developers credits for on-street parking or connections with public transportation, we can provide right-size regulations that make more room for the types of uses that we want to see.

-Streamline procedures. Decrease the regulatory hurdles for desired development. Consider permitting higher density residential uses, such as apartments, by right rather than by conditional use or special exception. Evaluate your zoning ordinance annually. If your zoning hearing board is routinely granting variances from a particular provision, it is a sign that the section needs to be changed to reflect current trends. By reducing the need for zoning hearing board relief, municipalities can lighten administrative burdens and create more consistent and predictable results.

By undertaking some of the reforms mentioned above, municipalities can ensure that their zoning ordinances serve as building blocks rather than barriers to the COVID-19 recovery in our communities.

Please feel free to contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group for assistance with any land use or development issues or if you have any questions regarding this post.