Zoning codes, traffic commitments, sewer and drainage design – all staples of land development in and around Ohio. Now, developers, contractors, and even new home builders may have a new issue to address when building on or even buying land.

With increased federal and state incentives for renewable energy initiatives, the connection between development and sustainability is becoming a paramount issue. Localities are responding by examining their zoning codes to ensure they are keeping pace with science and technology. That can mean big changes for developers and contractors throughout the State of Ohio.

Currently, many communities use comprehensive land use plans, and even local neighborhood plans to help guide future development. These plans, on the books in Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and many other municipalities, often address important issues like sprawl, green space preservation, traffic flow patterns, and land use intensity.

A sustainable land use plan and zoning code, however, may look much different than what developers and contractors are used to today. Sustainable codes may address or even mandate:

  • Site orientation – To make use of light and wind patterns
  • Allowance for compact wind turbines and anaerobic digesters – For energy production
  • New design standards – To address material use such as permeable concrete and infrastructure enhancements to support such projects as “green roofs”
  • Water management – to ensure “gray” water reuse and storm sewer protection 
  • Increased or specialized height and density restrictions – For consideration of the “solar envelope”

The solar envelope “regulates development within imaginary boundaries derived from the sun’s relative motion,” according to USC Architecture Professor Emeritus Ralph L Knowles. “Buildings within this container will not overshadow their surroundings during critical periods of the day and year.”

(Ralph L Knowles, The Solar Envelope, available at: http://www-rcf.usc.edu/~rknowles/sol_env/sol_env.html)

The California Case

California provides an excellent case study of how seriously “green” issues are affecting land use planning. Without the proper planning, citizens in California are finding themselves embroiled in controversies with their neighbors over who has access to the sun’s powerful rays. One case in particular, escalated into a criminal matter.

This criminal prosecution began very differently from most. It’s the tale of two neighbors in California, both trying to do the right thing. A decade ago, one neighbor planted redwoods in the yard in an attempt to add vegetation and shade to the property. A few years later, their neighbors installed rooftop solar panels to reduce energy costs. Both the Prius-driving redwood owners and the electric-car-driving solar panel installer are accomplishing great strides for the environment: the only problem is they live beside one another.

Thirty years ago, the California legislature was also trying to do the right thing when they passed a state law that protects a homeowner’s investment in rooftop solar panels. The Solar Shade Tree Act declares that trees impeding access to the sun can be deemed a nuisance. The deputy district attorney began prosecution under the Act and the owners of the redwoods were convicted and ordered to cut or trim their trees. (Tree No. 6 might be spared, but the judge postponed decision until the winter solstice when the sun is at its lowest and the tree would cast maximum shade.)

Looking Ahead

With new “green initiatives” taking place in many states, local governments will be forced to revisit their land use plans and local zoning codes. Absent proper planning and integrated design, conflicts such as that experienced by the California neighbors will become more rampant.

This recent case is indicative of new concerns that may arise regarding current local zoning codes. While no Ohio communities are known to have “greened” their zoning codes to any substantial degree, action is certainly on the horizon. It is important for both elected officials and developers, alike, to understand these issues and appreciate their impact as we move into a new era of land use regulation.