A Study of American Zoning Board Composition and Public Attitudes Toward Zoning Issues

57 Pages Posted: 14 Apr 2008

Date Written: April 12, 2008


In the United States, many important land use decisions are made, at least in the first instance, by administrative bodies composed of local citizens, appointed by the mayor or city council. These boards, typically designated the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustment, are often suspected of favoritism and bias, in exercising authority ranging from the adoption of comprehensive land use plans and zoning amendments to granting variances or special use permits. However, courts routinely give board decisions great deference, adopting a presumption of validity based on the notion that these boards are composed of the proper representatives of the community.

In order to test that assumption, we surveyed the nation`s largest cities to determine the occupations of their zoning board members. The results indicate that zoning boards are dominated by citizens with white-collar occupations. About three-quarters of zoning board members hold professional, technical or managerial jobs, despite comprising only a third of the national workforce. In addition, over 30% of board members have a direct interest in property development.

To determine the potential effects of this occupational skew, we conducted a survey of citizens to determine whether their attitudes toward controversial land use issues vary according to demographic factors, including occupation. We found significant differences, although not always in ways we expected. In the end, these results indicate that cities should attempt to appoint a broader cross-section of the community to zoning boards. Although planners, lawyers, and other professionals were necessary in the past, we question whether particular expertise is necessary to accomplish the tasks assigned to modern zoning boards. Finally, if zoning boards continue to be dominated by interest groups, courts may need to reconsider the deference they typically grant to board decisions.

Keywords: zoning, land use, planning

JEL Classification: H70, K11

Suggested Citation

Anderson, Jerry L., A Study of American Zoning Board Composition and Public Attitudes Toward Zoning Issues (April 12, 2008). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1119582 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1119582

Jerry L. Anderson (Contact Author)

Drake University Law School ( email )

27th & Carpenter Sts.
Des Moines, IA 50311
United States
515-271-2824 (Phone)
515-271-4114 (Fax)

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