Articles and News about Zoning Issues

What is Zoning?

Zoning refers to regulations a city puts in place to indicate how land can be used.  It typically controls the type of buildings that can be built, where they can be built, and some features of the building. For example, zoning code might say that only residential buildings can be built on a particular site, and might control their height and how close to the street they can be built.

Eugene's complete zoning code can be found on the City's website.

How does zoning affect walkability and housing options?

Walkability depends on compact development and a mix of uses in a neighborhood. Generally speaking, a sprawling neighborhood will be less walkable, because places to walk to will be fewer and farther apart.  For example, while in Eugene land designated R-1 (low-density residential) allows no more than 14 homes per acre, a “walkable” neighborhood needs enough residents to support a variety of land uses (shopping, entertainment, services) within a one-mile radius.

Similarly, single-use neighborhoods are less likely to have appealing destinations within walking distance. If zoning allows only residential use over a large area, it can be difficult for residents to walk to shopping, work, or entertainment.

In addition, zoning code can regulate other factors that affect the safety and enjoyment of walking, such as building height, setbacks from the street, parking requirements, and sidewalk dimensions.

In general, when a developer is building a new building or remodeling an old one, s/he must apply for a permit. The permit approval process verifies that the plans comply with the code.  If they do, the permit is issued and construction can begin. Therefore, it is important that the zoning code accurately reflect the type of development we want to occur.

Eugene's Code and Walkability

Much of Eugene’s zoning code was written, and construction was done, at a time when walkable neighborhoods were not a priority.   Some recent changes have encouraged more mixed use development and “missing middle” housing, but other changes have made this type of development more difficult to complete.

In addition, loopholes sometimes undermine code requirements.  For example, current code would require parking to be located behind the re-developed building at the Southtowne Lanes site--but since the proposed development does not change the type of land use and meets some other criteria, it is not required to conform to code that has been revised since the original construction. 

In many ways, various provisions in Eugene’s code work at cross-purposes, and this can make “missing middle” housing and mixed-use development difficult.  For example, while residential areas specify minimum and maximum density, requirements governing lot size and parking requirements can make it impossible to achieve these densities.  In addition, Eugene’s code allows some types of development only in Plan Unit Developments or subdivisions.  This creates an incentive for large development projects, but can make smaller, infill projects more difficult.

Finally, Eugene's code is only part of the process. Many types of development, such as cottage clusters, require lengthy land use approval processes before building permits can be issued.  These processes also come into play for even minor adjustments that allow a building to respond to the particulars of its site in a way that meets the spirit of the code.

Form Based Code

Conventional zoning code is largely based on separating land uses, so that commercial or industrial uses are not too close to residential areas.  Eugene's zoning map shows specific areas for low-density housing, other areas for major commercial developments, still other sites for industrial uses, and so on. This approach to zoning creates challenges for building mixed-use areas and walkable neighborhoods.

In contrast, “Form-based code” relies on the physical form of a building, rather than solely on its use, to plan development.  According to the Form Based Codes Institute: "Form-based codes address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks. The regulations and standards in form-based codes are presented in both words and clearly drawn diagrams and other visuals."

A Form-Based Code would include a map of where different building forms apply, specifics about the elements of the public realm such as roads and sidewalks, design standards for buildings, processes for obtaining building permits, and definitions. More information about Form Based Code can be found at the Form Based Codes Institute.

Eugene has begun to develop Form Based Codes for new Special Area Zones, such as the South Willamette Special Area Zone. The goal is to ensure that new buildings are compatible with the neighborhood and increase neighborhood livability while contributing toward more walkable neighborhoods.

Zoning Code vs. Plans

Plans, including comprehensive plans, refinement plans, and concept plans, provide a vision for an area over a longer time frame (20-50 years).  They frequently identify particular projects or strategies to achieve that vision. A plan provides instruction and guidance to the city and groups within the city about setting priorities,  seeking funding for certain projects, and planning infrastructure. Zoning code--including a “Special Area Zone”-- is one specific method of implementing the vision described in a plan. Zoning focuses on buildings and land use. Someone who is constructing a new building may reference a plan, but ultimately the Zoning Code determines what s/he can or cannot do on the property in question. In fact, state law (ORS 197.200) requires that refinement plans “include land use regulations to implement the plan.”

The Comprehensive Plan Map is about the future… The Comprehensive Plan Map depicts a long-term vision of how and where the city will grow and change over the next 20 years to accommodate expected population and job growth.

The Zoning Map is about what is allowed today… Decisions about Comprehensive Plan designations directly guide subsequent decisions about zoning. The City’s Zoning Map tells us how land can be used and what can be built on any given property today. Zones are more specific than the Comprehensive Plan designations and come with a set of rules (included in the City’s Zoning Code) that clarify what uses are allowed (e.g., residences, businesses, manufacturing), and how buildings may be developed or changed (e.g., maximum heights and required setbacks from property lines).
— City of Portland Website

In general, zones in the city are standard-- R1 residential zones follow the same rules in the northwest corner of the city as they do in the southeast. A Special Area Zone provides unique regulations for particular areas of the city in order to meet the long term vision of that area.

The zoning ordinance is the most important tool in the day-to-day planning effort...
— DLCD's Introductory Guide to Land Use Planning for Small Cities and Counties in Oregon.

What is Needed

  • Code Updates:  Eugene’s code is often inconsistent with our established plans and zoning, because it does not encourage or streamline the construction of mixed use or missing middle housing.   The code should be updated to define additional missing middle housing and mixed use types in the code, and to ensure that lot size requirements and permitted density levels make it possible to build these types of uses.
  • Goals and Success Criteria: Through our planning processes, we should develop goals and success criteria.  Area plans, and associated code updates should be tested against the goals and success criteria to ensure that they are contributing both to neighborhood priorities and to City-wide goals.
  • Form Based Code: In future code updates, Form-Based code should be used to facilitate the development of new housing and mixed use areas that are compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods.  
  • Promotion of Small Infill Projects: Permitting and planning processes should encourage small infill development--projects that add one to three units.  Practices that inhibit the creation of incremental, small “missing middle” housing--such as the requirement that this housing be part of a large Planned Unit Development--should be revisited.