White-collar professionals are making the majority of the planning and zoning decisions across the country.
That may be a cause for concern according to a recent study by Jerry Anderson, Drake University professor of law, and two of his students, Aaron Brees (LW ’07) and Emily Renninger (LW ’09). Their findings were published last fall in the legal journal, “Urban Lawyer.”
“This study would not have been successful without the dedication of Aaron and Emily,” said Anderson. “They did the hard work of collecting and crunching data.”
Anderson and his students gathered data on the occupations of more than 1,400 zoning board members in 137 of the nation’s largest cities. The study was inspired by a similar, though smaller scale survey done 70 years ago. Like the earlier study, Anderson’s survey indicated that zoning boards continue to be dominated by white-collar occupations, primarily business owners, developers, attorneys and politicians.
Zoning board decisions are often controversial, and Anderson’s study suggests “unrepresentative” zoning boards may contribute to this.
“For example, a prevalence of board members who place a higher value on economic growth than neighborhood and environmental impacts helps explain our inability to control urban sprawl and meaningfully control development. It may explain why high-impact land uses are located most often in poorer sections of town,” the study states.
Perhaps even more significant is that courts often defer to zoning board decisions.
“This is based on the ideal of the neutral body of citizens, but if the board is not really neutral, if it’s got a systematic bias, some of these decisions need higher scrutiny,” Anderson said.
To further understand if planning and zoning decisions would be different if a board was more representative, Anderson and his team also surveyed approximately 800 Iowans from diverse occupations and age groups. The respondents offered opinions about various zoning concerns, including the impact of a rezoning for a big box store, the importance of historical preservation and whether a gated community should have public access.
“The survey found that people from different backgrounds have different views on things zoning boards do,” said Anderson. “It confirmed our feeling that demographic variables could significantly affect these opinions.”
For example, the survey indicated that older citizens may care more about security and neighborhood protection than about recreation, historic preservation or the environment. Meanwhile, white-collar professionals were more likely to grant big box rezoning than any of the other groups, while those with clerical/sales occupations were less likely to grant big box rezoning and were more protective of the affected neighborhood.
“While it’s hard to generalize about how zoning decisions might change with broader representation, what is clear is that demographic characteristics correlate with differing attitudes on zoning issues, suggesting that selecting a more representational group of citizens would ensure a broader range of opinions on land use issues,” said Anderson.
Suggestions for the board
The study recommends that officials who appoint zoning boards strive to include a cross-section of citizens to ensure all views are represented. To make people more willing to serve, Anderson suggests offering board members compensation and training. Some states use professional staff to make some of the decisions now made by boards.
Anderson stresses that his intention with the study is not to be critical of the professionals who serve on zoning boards. They bring valuable expertise to what can often be a thankless job.
“It’s natural for people with vested interests in what the board does to gravitate toward serving,” said Anderson. “It can also be hard to find people to serve because the work is often complex and time-consuming, and not always very exciting.”
“Nevertheless,” Anderson concludes, “a more representative board would lead to better decision-making and hopefully, greater community acceptance of those decisions.”