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Zoning the Land for the Glory of God: A Developer's Lament

Zoning the Land for the Glory of God: A Developer's Lament

With the current land-use patterns in the U.S., seeking biblical justice is near impossible.

To participate in segregation or not.

To settle for "marginal" when excellence could be achieved.

These are some of my internal struggles.

What I'm referring to is my growing discontentment with the land-use patterns and decision making so often used in the United States. For the past 13 years, I have been employed by a large homebuilder in the Southeast and done everything from manage residential construction to oversee the purchase of property for development. My eye is trained on our physical environment and places—the realm in which we carry out our daily lives.

Have you ever wondered why our physical environment (roads, buildings, cities, suburbs, and rural areas) has developed the way it has? The use of most pieces of property is governed by rules known as "zoning." Zoning laws are usually localized and specific regulations that describe what is legal to do with one's land. For instance, a retail store owner often needs public zoning approval prior to building a new shop on a vacant corner. Regulations can be so detailed that homeowners might even be demanded to notify the neighborhood and hold community meetings to gain public approval of the color, material and architectural style of a front porch renovation if their house is located in an area designated as a historic district.

In the state of Virginia, where I live, zoning is managed by two rules: (1) a comprehensive plan that must by law be reviewed and updated regularly in a process that involves the community; and (2) the Board and Council members who are called to determine if a project meets the comprehensive plan and ultimately to determine if it will be developed. There are as many local zoning nuances as there are jurisdictions across the country.

Thinking strategically about how we use the land is both wise and biblically supported in the Genesis cultural mandate. Land-use planning prompts the careful use of resources, summons public input in growth decisions, anticipates future infrastructure needs like drinking water and sewer systems, plans transportation, helps use taxpayer dollars in a cost-effective way, and shapes the physical environment where people live. But like anything, the tool is not the trouble, but its misuse.


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Displaying 1–5 of 7 comments

Henry Kent-smith

April 17, 2012  7:13pm

Rob, your article is so very true, not just Richmond but throughout America. As a transplanted Richmonder practicing land use law in New Jersey, I fight the pernicious effects of exclusionary zoning every working day. God calls us to be good and faithful stewards and servants. Unfortunately the land use process is a theater of division, of "us v them" and NIMBYism that strives to exclude, rather than build means to include. Fighting the machine of local zoning requires a great deal of spiritual replenishment. I too would welcome the chance to meet and talk. Hopefullly the good Lord will inspire a few new ideas!!

Derek C

April 03, 2012  3:40pm

Thanks for the work, Rob. @Roger - don't toss baby out with the bathwater. Zoning keeps strip clubs from being located near schools. As I understood it (could be wrong though...), I think Jacobs was advocating for integrated planning (intentional and thoughtful) that develops a community (see, life and death of great american cities). Even as cities change, she would have wanted it controlled to some extent so as to prevent decay (juxtaposed against transition). She also had something to say about people and their attitudes, but that's another discussion.


March 31, 2012  2:20pm

Rob- Very well written. I share your concern for what we are doing to Richmond and really this country overall. A fun read on how we got into the situation we are in is James Kunstler's "The Geography of Nowhere" The problem is easy to diagnose if you are paying attention as you are. The solution is hard to see.

Mark Larson

March 29, 2012  4:26pm

Rob - another short book you might read is "Green Like God". It discusses a Christian's responsibility to be a steward of this planet. How we use land is an important part of our stewardship.

Andrew Moore

March 29, 2012  9:05am

Rob - thanks for the thoughtful analysis of residential zoning. I completely agree with your identification of the moral and social justice implications of land use patterns. I also think that the typical suburban development pattern is directly contributes to spiritual decline due to its inherent counter-community divisiveness. Let's have a cup of coffee sometime and chat.


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