Land Use Planning and Socioeconomic Goals

Many community advocates have attempted to advance socioeconomic goals through the traditional land use system of zoning, permitting, and planning documents like general plans. Such attempts might include advocacy for a living wage requirement to be placed on certain types of developments, or enacted as part of an incentive zoning scheme; or advocacy for a general plan to include language encouraging retention of high-quality jobs in specified low-income areas.

Advocates for such policies are often told by elected officials, planners, and even city attorneys that it is not legal to use the land use regulation system (zoning, etc.) to advance these "unusual" goals; the argument is that these well-established land use tools may be used only to advance traditional land use goals, such as controlling density, design, and environmental impacts.

This argument is without basis in law, but it is nonetheless employed frequently, and has become something of a trope. In fact, as is briefly discussed here, local government’s power to regulate land use derives from, and is an expression of, the police power, under which local governments have a broad mandate to protect the health, morals, safety, and welfare of their citizens. Regulation of land use in ways that protect and advance the economic well-being of citizens is well within the police power. In fact, "economic development" in furtherance of business activity is a well-established, traditional goal of land use regulation, and there is no legal basis to distinguish this accepted purpose from efforts to protect the economic welfare of individuals and families through the same tools.