Interpreting A Zoning Ordinance

Dear Management Doctor:

We need your assistance...

A zoning ordinance refers to areas "along major arterials" within the district. This phrase is causing problems. Some want a broad interpretation of this phrase as being property even remotely near a major road; while others want to interpret the phrase as being more proximal or "adjacent or on the road." With no definition in the ordinance, Webster defines "along" as "in a line matching the length or direction of," with the example given of "walking along the road." How should we interpret this to be most accurate — and give me your best argurment to support your interpretation.

Thank you.

Thomas Bell
South Carolina

Dear Thomas,

I am not a zoning expert and primarily handle management questions. However, recently I have had a few zoning questions and my e-mailers have been very helpful in providing good responses. Let's see how they do with your question.

I do have a few thoughts of my own. The real question here is — what does the ordinance say you do with “areas along major arterials?” Even more important — what do you want to do with “areas along major arterials?” Once you answer these questions, you can go ahead and stick your neck out and interpret the ordinance the way you want. Then, I would immediately amend the ordinance to clean up the confusion.

This leads me to a second frustration with many planners. They simply repeat what has been included in various zoning ordinances over and over again with no independent thought or verification. No wonder many are now wanting to throw the whole thing out. We can do better.

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

There are several types of zoning regulations relating to “along a major arterial,” usually meaning “fronting on” the major street. Special setbacks, landscaping treatments, signage, or viewshed rules are typical. Since these ordinances are related either to providing for development setbacks to assure ability to widen major streets without impacting the business fronting on the road, or aesthetics along the roadway, it wouldn’t make sense to apply them to property development without frontage on the street.

While I am at it, I’d like to put in a plug for APA chapter listserves, they are great for getting responses to this kind of technical question.

Sarah S. More, FAICP
Town of Oro Valley, AZ


I'm not a lawyer or an expert on ordinances or even a planner; but if there are no statute definitions or legal precedent to follow, I would suggest a couple of tests you could apply:

  • The straight face test — Can your attorney keep a straight face when he explains to a judge how a property a block away from an arterial was determined to be "along major arterials?"
  • The reasonable person test — How would a reasonable person interpret "along major arterials." The reasonable person is mythological. However, someone who is not staff, elected official, applicant or NIMBY (a disinterested party) would be a good approximation. This might give a window into how a reasonable judge would view the situation.
Being realistic, if you are looking to apply the ordinance to anything other than properties that have frontage on major arterials (or at least driveway access to the major arterial), you should revise the ordinance to define the limits of the zone along the major arterials.

Benjamin J. Jordan, P.E.
University of Wisconsin - Madison, WI


That's easy for those of us at your local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), aka the planners who do your regional transportation plan and transportation improvement program. In order to properly model the impact of roadway improvements on air quality, we must first define our roads according to their functional classification. One of those classifications is "major arterial."

Check it out with your MPO, or if you don't have one, try your public works department. The traffic engineers there would probably have some classification scheme for your local roads. It would at least give you a place to start that you could hang your hat on.

Polly Carolin, FAICP


I would be inclined to take the restrictive approach because the phrase is probably referring to more intense development such as commercial and multi-family. The argument against is that we potentially end up with strip commercial development unless there are guidelines addressing parcel size and proximity to intersections to promote the idea of node development.

Jory Stewart
City of North Las Vegas, NV


In Michigan, one of the responsiblities and duties of the Board of Zoning Appeals is to provide needed interpretation of the ordinance.

Since most state zoning-enabling legislation was based on the national model, perhaps your state allows for the same. If so, it is likely that you will be asked to offer some assistance in developing such an interpretation.

In my early years, I often attempted to craft opinion and recommendations on academics or theory. Over the years I have found common sense, logical thought and 'plain speak' to be more effective.

Engage your board in some informal talks and you are likely going to solve the dilemma.

Bill Kauffman
St. Clair County, MI

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