Who Joins Zoning Boards?

What kind of person would volunteer to serve on a zoning board? It’s not exactly a lucrative position. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that a new study by Jerry L. Anderson, Aaron Brees, and Emily Renninger finds that most zoning board members have something to gain from their positions: “[C]ertain types of professional occupations – business, real estate, law, bankers, planners, and architects – are disproportionately represented. In some cities, the majority of board members have some direct or indirect interest in the development process.” The authors argue that this disproportionate representation may lead to predictable building patterns — the prevalence of urban sprawl and gated communities or why “high-impact land uses are located most often in poorer sections of town.” In Norway, there’s a quota for women on corporate boards, which seems to be working out well; is there a corollary to consider for U.S. zoning boards? [%comments]


I don't know how the board members are selected in America but I hope that they are picked through popular election.


The prevalence of urban sprawl is based on zoning codes themselves. Zoning boards are there solely to issue variances to the code.

Don't you want boards to be made up by people that know what they are talking about? I have met with zoning boards which demand walking trails to be installed at the power plant my company was trying to develop.

I wish that zoning board had someone with some experience with land use.


As one who used to be a reporter (small papers) and has sat in on more zoning and planning board meetings and work sessions than I care to recall: The study confirms what I saw over and over. Moreover, the general public is highly interested in the politics of Washington DC and their elected representatives, yet the real power over their day-to-day lives is wielded by these appointees. (#1, although zoning and planning boards generally have at least one member of the municipal government as a member, mostly they are appointed, not elected. The fact that most people don't know this kind of thing is part of the problem.) People rarely come to these meetings until it is too late and the fix is in.

The zoning and planning boards exist to harass and trouble the small homeowner who wants to put a railing on his porch, while giving away the store to the developer -- possibly an in-law, friend, or business contact -- who wants to clear-cut the last remaining open space for McMansions or strip malls.



Not a big stretch, I'm on a city park board. The other members are those who feel strongly about parks in our community.

@Benji: My city chooses board members by interview with the Mayor, City Manager and a Council Member. There is plenty of place for special interest to sneak in.

Doug Marcum

In the county in which I live here in Ohio the County Commissioners (elected) have been dominated by real estate developers for as long as I can remember. So never mind zoning boards. It's truly amazing how people will, time and again, vote against their own best interests.


This is not surprising, in my town the Zoning Board was appointed by the mayor. Something like 95% of variances were approved. The high rate indicates there was definitely something in it for them.
After the mayor was caught trying to 'expedite' a building for a bribe a reform group took over. They were already pushing to revert appointments back the town council. Definitely having some professionals and some laymen on the board helps but having someone keep an eye on them is more important...


I always used to think that ethics rules would prevent developers from sitting on municipal zoning boards. My experience in public transit administration showed me this was not the case.

Sometimes mayors think, "Gee, this guy built a lot of shopping malls, he must know something about zoning codes!" and appoint the nearest land grabber he can find. The academics on the other end of the spectrum are usually kooky and untrustworthy. Is there anyone left?


Different towns around here have different characters as far as zoning boards - people sometimes move to one or the other town accordingly. Since most people are appointed, and many of these from those who come forward, it depends on who wants to become involved.

There is another category other than those in businesses affected by zoning - the busybody, sometimes with a cause celebre, like number of pets or how driveways are set up. This has both good and bad aspects. As much as we complain about busybodies, sometimes they are the only people who actually say out loud, and wrok toward, what most people are saying to each other in private.

It's really a matter of balance. Zoning can get ridiculous, but lack of zoning can make a community unlivable to all except a few who gain from that.

Thomas Sewell

Is regulatory capture really such a new idea to thse folks?

This happens all the way to the interstate commerce commission and the FDC.... The people most affected are the ones most knowledgable and interested in running the regulators.

Regulations and regulatory bodies aren't a magic bullet...


What percentage of county commissioner, city council members, mayors, school board members & similar boards are represented by people with a background in business, law, banking or real estate?

Would they have much a different mix than the zoning board?


I've seen an environmental obstructionist at work on a zoning board. He made a highly responsible developer do ridiculous things (unneeded erosion control uphill(!) from construction, over-sized septic system) and delayed a building for two years. The wait harmed the project financially as the economy deteriorated and units wouldn't sell. The project only passed when he was on vacation and the other members voted to accept it in his absence. He wasn't happy when he returned to find out what happened.

Vested interests can be both a blessing and a curse to developers. Unfortunately, they're likely to be the most knowledgeable about development. It's a sticky situation and prone to nefarious influences, too .

Patrick S

Some more specialized boards have quotas by profession. For example, the Atlanta Urban Design Commission is required to have two architects, as well as a landscape architect, lawyer, land developer, real estate professional, historic preservationist, artist, historian, neighborhood representative, and urban planner. So you get a variety of views, although, of course, all are appointed by politicians.


Don't you think that part of the reason that some of those occupations are "over" represented because those people feel they can do the most good in that position. That they have some knowledge of how zoning works or are comfortable working in that area.


My rule of a thumb in America: the smaller the government, the more corrupt it gets.

There is a pretty simple freakonomish explanation for this: small isn't beautiful. Small is unauditable, and as long as no big newspaper raises a stink, there can be a lot of garbage going on in local governments.

When it comes to large city governments, they are under consistent scrutiny. There are a few newspapers that constantly check the decisions made by big North American cities. However, when it comes to small towns, in particularly - small resort towns, a lot can happen. Person who can miraculously turn Ordinary Land into Development Land can actually make a lot of money in process.


Umm the people who did this study obviously have no experience with public semi-volunteer boards. Anyone who has the faintest familiarity with them could tell you that they are chock full of people with direct financial interest in their decisions.

As a simple example one county housing board I have been involved with has 5 members:

1 who works on housing in an adjoining county!
1 who works for a residents association that has received large amounts of money from the county housing board in the past and present.
1 housing consultant who sells his expertise for a living despite having almost none.
1 landlord.
And finally a very conservative business owner/landlord basically looking to shut the whole thing down.

Each one of these people has clear conflicts of interests that come up regularly. Partially it is the price you pay for people with expertise, but MOSTLY it is the fact no one cares enough to do these things for $50/week unless they get huge financial rewards for doing so.


Jon R

I agree in principle with your point (and even moreso with Thomas Sewell's point about regulatory capture) but I do have a bone to pick:
that is your inclusion of planners and architects in your list of
"those who have something to gain" by serving on zoning boards. Apart from the fact that we specifically educate and license these professionals to do exactly this (represent the larger public interest over private interests in the planning and design spheres) any architect who acted against the public interest on a zoning board would be violating the AIA Code of Ethics and subject to loss of AIA membership and license to practice.

With your obsessive focus on economics as a way to understand all of human behavior you ignore the possibility that people may be acting altrustically: in the public interest (as they see it). And you are right, people don't serve on zoning boards for the pay - and there are only two possible motivations: getting more business or serving the public interest. Every professional I know who has served on a zoning board has been motivated by altruisim.

BTW, I assume from your inclusion of planning and design professionals in your critique that you would prefer to not have doctors serving on public boards and agencies dealing with health care and medical issues....!



While I have no problem with land use regulations so gas stations don't open up in subdivisions, as a general rule, property owners should decide what their own house or business property looks like. Zoning boards, like neighborhood association boards, are either self interested or busy body Mrs. Kravitz types wanting in on your business and wanting to control your property.


Most people on zoning boards are either interested parties or obstructionist individuals who wax nostalgic about preserving things that no longer exist. It is true that occasionally developers gain far too much clout on the board, however, the truth is that the communities in a large portion of America are tripping over themselves to attract short sighted development through the use of incentives and poorly thought out tax financing. Additionally, zoning boards often engage in conduct that significantly overreaches their authority by either granting variances/permits which conflict with zoning laws or by excessively interfering with the enjoyment of private property and the exercise of property for permitted uses. In summary, zoning boards seem to indulge a harmful combination of acting in self interest, allowing politicians/developers to construct poorly planned pie in the sky developments, and encouraging the counter productive cry of the NIMBY crowd. I think that overly arbitrary quotas would simply fill these boards with uninformed individuals who couldn't understand the nuances of zoning and any quota should be structured t in order to try to enhance the ability of zoning boards to look beyond the interested individuals who actually show up to meetings and focus on the big picture impact of development and use. It is also important to remember that it in many communities(esp. smaller ones) any contentious zoning decision might be appealed to an elected body



@Greg, #7: "The academics on the other end of the spectrum are usually kooky and untrustworthy. Is there anyone left?"

I'm one of those academics. Kooky? Why? Because we have opinions that differ from that of the developers? Untrustworthy? Again, why? I can't imagine.

I served on a board as the representative of a neighborhood in a major city. As a sociologist, professor, and urban planner -- but most importantly as a community member - I just wanted to serve the city I lived in, and make it better for myself and all my neighbors. I certainly had my own opinions and viewpoints on good development and a good city -- but as a believer in democracy, I felt I was there not to press my personal agenda but to speak up for all the people in my neighborhood, even if I personally didn't always agree with them.

I quit, mostly because everything that went on was pretty much as the blog states: people with a personal financial interest were a majority, and controlled all the outcomes, which ignored any criteria except developers' and landowners' profits. Those few like me who were on the board as simple citizens, not as developers and realtors and landowners, were always overrun by the profit-motive.



KTD and others have it right. Consider that people want to do their pro bono work in an area that they feel they have something to contribute. Perhaps their profession gives them some modest level of expertise. Here in New England - land of very small Town governments - it's generally the case that a zoning board without some development expertise is a disaster. I lived for 10 years in a Boston exurb where the zoning board of appeals is on record arguing about salamander tunnels under a new road. Not if there should be tunnels, but if they should be lighted. The record contains a commissioner statement to the effect that, "I know if I was a salamander I'd be afraid of a long dark tunnel at night" Hard to argue with that.

The true economics of all this is that in small town New England people enrich themselves by enforcing large lot zoning and working against new development in order to increase the value of their existing homes.

It started as NIMBY ( Not in My Backyard) then became BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody) and now it's NOPE (Not On Planet Earth). It's always about self-enrichment.