Land Use, Jules Verne and Marty McFly

             In the final scene of the movie Back to the Future III, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) stands on the train tracks as Doc Brown and his wife Clara arrive on a locomotive from 1884 fitted with folding wings and an engine from an unknown but distant future.  As they prepare to return to that future time, Doc Brown shouts to Marty “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads” as the engine goes airborne and disappears.

             Although fictional, the dynamic is a proven one.  Technological changes have always been one of the factors that have altered the ways we use, develop and regulate land.

             Prior to WWII, American towns were held together by centripetal forces that held development near the center like the sun holds the planets in orbit.  Banks, churches, department stores, schools and the neighborhoods that were connected to all of these uses by sidewalks both prevented and discouraged what later became known by the pejorative term sprawl.  When you moved beyond them you moved to the country.

             But after WWII, the automobile became a primary and improved means of transportation.  Town residents now had greater means to move beyond the center, and year after year more roads were built to accommodate movement to what became ubiquitous suburbs built on cheap land with large lots and shopping malls wedged between.  Land uses that once were geographically connected were now separated, connected by roads and machines on wheels.  And entire zoning codes had to be developed in response. 

             The automobile, thus, became a centrifugal force, sending main parts of the center city into the outlying areas that once was country.

             Looking, as Doc Brown did, “back to the future,” there are many changes one can predict or identify now based upon technological advancements that have been made or are being developed.

             For decades the neighborhood gas station was connected to a repair garage, and the two uses were zoned as one.  Then gas pumps became ancillary uses to convenience stores rather than garages, which meant changes in allowed signage and some expansion of locations. 

             But with the advent of the battery-powered, electrically recharged car, will there become a new use – a “recharge” station – where cars can be parked long enough to receive a new charge for the trip home?  Will zoning codes treat it as a primary or ancillary use in various zoning districts?  And could it be connected to just about any non-residential use or, for that matter, residential uses themselves, such as apartment complexes that provide recharge stations just like they provide a swimming pool?

             Wind turbines, yet an infant industry, create an opportunity and a dilemma.  They are, in essence, industrial power generators converting wind into electricity.  But these large, visually obtrusive and audible industrial machines need open land – and open land is invariably zoned for agricultural and low density uses, not industrial ones.  Under many states’ laws, placing a 250 foot tall wind turbine in the middle of an AG district would constitute illegal “spot zoning,” and calling them wind “farms” doesn’t make them agricultural.  And good luck to the company that thinks it can meet special use permit requirements for something of this magnitude.

             It doesn’t help that the only places that have sustained, high winds are “pretty places” that folks want to protect from visual clutter – places such as the coast and mountain ridges.

             Solar “farms” are another new industry made practical by modern research that local governments are trying to accommodate and regulate.  Solar farms, to be economically feasible, need acres of open space with good southern exposure.  And they are, intrinsically, industrial.  Do we allow them in agricultural districts as primary uses?  And, more importantly, do we allow them as accessory uses on smaller scales in any zoning district if placed on rooftops of schools or office buildings?

             Cell towers, although seemingly regulated as essential nuisances, will continue to be accepted more readily near homes and offices as we become increasingly connected to the outside world through little handheld digital devices that used to be “just” phones but now play movies and videotape soccer games.  But as smart phones and their eventual replacements morph from being extensions of our lives to, in some sense, being our lives, we will view quite differently the physical architecture that makes signals and download speeds possible.

             Who would have thought in 1980 that computers would, in twenty years, make it possible to have a virtual university campus?  Or that scanned documents and email and fax machines would one day cause the U.S. Postal Service to begin shrinking the number of post offices by the thousands?  And who can guess what the next twenty years of technological and digital advances will do to affect our interconnected relationships with and the way we regulate land?

             My crystal ball is cloudy.          

 Note: This article was originally written for SML Perspectives under the title Land Use, Zoning Codes and Technology: Old Crossroads, New Turns.

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