Why do we have zoning laws?

For The Record Zoning MapFor most of us, buying a home is our largest investment. Setting aside areas of the city for single-family homes and controlling what can be built there helps protect that investment. For the record, zoning is required of all localities in Virginia. Zoning districts also help the city allocate resources, infrastructure and services efficiently by concentrating commercial areas and other high-traffic uses near major roads.

If all the tall office buildings are concentrated in one or two districts, for example, the city will need fewer tall ladder fire trucks and can position them close to where they are needed.

Conflicts can occur when one type of zoning bumps up against another — or when a property owner wants to change zoning — and that triggers a process that gives neighbors a chance to give input.


Q: Who requires cities to have zoning?

A: The state requires all localities to adopt a zoning ordinance to promote the health, safety, and welfare of the public and to strike a balance between private property rights and public interest. There are certain fundamental principles and legal frameworks (governed by state code and court rulings) that each zoning ordinance must meet.

Q: So, the city is divided into residential, commercial and industrial zones?

A: Basically. Within each of those main categories, there are sub-categories separating residential into single-family or apartments/condos and various types of commerce or industry. Residential zones vary on requirements such as lot sizes, distances between homes, heights of homes, etc. Some formerly rural areas require large lots, as do some environmentally sensitive areas. Some distinct areas have special zones created just for a specific mix of uses, such as parts of Fort Monroe, downtown, Phoebus, or office parks.

Commercial areas are usually along major roads – Mercury Boulevard, King Street, Pembroke – or at key intersections – Big Bethel and Hampton Roads Center Parkway, Fox Hill and Willow Oaks. Often, multi-family districts provide transitions between quiet single-family neighborhoods and busy commercial areas.

Q: Are single-family homes the only thing that can be built in single-family districts? 

A: Not quite. Hampton has 11 one- and two-family residential zones. Generally, smaller lots are allowed in the lower numbers (R-4, R-9), with larger lots and bigger homes in the higher numbered zones (R-15, R-33).

A single-family home is allowed in all of them, as well as uses that go along with that – at-home work, small family day care, public library, churches or other religious institutions. Some uses that have a bigger potential impact on their neighbors, like a commercial day care, bed and breakfast, playground or marina, require a use permit. Hampton's zoning ordinance has a table that shows which uses require a permit and which are allowed "by-right."

Q: Why require a use permit if it's a good fit?

A: Some uses that are generally a good fit need a little extra review to factor in the unique conditions of the surrounding area. A use permit allows the city to add some requirements – limiting the hours of operation – or location (a playground at a school or church, not too close to a home) for that specific site. The use permit application also triggers a public process, and nearby land owners are notified and given a chance to speak at public hearings. Things like traffic, parking and noise are considered.

Q: Why are there different commercial and industrial zones? Shouldn't businesses get to decide that?

A: Again, one of the key factors is the impact to neighbors. The zones build on each other and grow in intensity. For example, C-1 is often smaller businesses catering to people nearby, like banks, nail salons, car washes, restaurants, and convenience stores. C-2 includes those, plus business-to-business retail, like sign shops, and recreation, like bowling alleys. C-3 adds in the larger impacts of noise, emissions or smell, things like seafood manufacturing and major car repair. Similarly, the manufacturing and industrial zones grow in intensity, with the heaviest uses concentrated in Copeland Industrial Park and the Bright's Creek area along the interstate.

Q: Isn't this a case of bureaucrats deciding what the private sector should do?

A: It's really a process by which community standards are developed and applied. City Council enacts zoning rules at the end of a long process that involves input from citizens and business owners. Hampton has a series of guiding documents that are created by building a community consensus about how the city should grow and develop. Overall, it's the city's Community Plan. Some areas have more detailed master plans. Those documents are updated periodically to reflect trends and account for changes. Land-use changes or use permits are evaluated by staff against those community documents and public hearings are held in front of the citizen-led Planning Commission and City Council.

Q: What if an owner wants to change the zoning of his land?

A: The owner can apply for a change of zoning, and it will go through a public process that includes at least two advertised public hearings. For example, when Wawa wanted to locate at Aberdeen and Mercury, most of the land was already zoned for that use, but they requested a rezoning of one of the parcels that didn't front on Mercury. Some rezoning requests include "proffers," or voluntary conditions the owner includes to make the change more acceptable to neighbors or the city, such as enhanced landscaping, particular building materials like brick or stone, or a specific site plan that places parking in locations that have a lesser impact on traffic or neighbors.

Posted March 21, 2018.