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5/12/2017 | Articles & Alerts

                As a land use lawyer, I have been involved in numerous zoning change and variance applications filed by developers under the banner “adaptive reuse.” This term is sometimes overused and misconstrued, but it generally refers to the re-purposing of abandoned property in a manner inconsistent with its current zoning. This often takes the form of converting a former industrial or manufacturing use and its underlying zoning to a retail, residential, or office classification and use. Of late, multi-family housing has become the most popular adaptive re-use for abandoned industrial sites.

                While from a land use perspective, re-purposing these old sites often come with the added benefits of environmental cleanup, aesthetic improvement, and additions to the local tax base. All older industrial areas have reduced the quantity of industrial land through rezoning in recent decades; indeed, their economic survival requires them to do so. With manufacturing representing a progressively smaller share of economic activity, the rezoning of some industrial land is needed to bring the overall supply of industrial land in line with demand. However, sometimes too much of a good thing leads to unintended consequences.

                While rezoning is appropriate in many cases, they should be done carefully. Currently, there has been a push to bring manufacturing back to the United States from overseas. Is there sufficient industrially-zoned land to achieve this goal? Industrial uses are often unpopular due to the potential for noise, truck traffic, and environmental contamination. However, modern industry may not have these negative attributes. While it would be simple enough to provide land for industrial uses in the more rural parts of our nation, away from populated areas, such a solution is too convenient. Many areas have high poverty rates, and maintaining and rebuilding the industrial base could play an important role in putting unemployed residents to work. However, these workers often need to live close enough to industrial areas to take advantage of public transportation or a shorter commute time.

                Zoning has long recognized that mixing certain uses—such as residences and heavy industry—creates problems. For example, zoning prevents factories from moving into a residential area, a development that, in most cases, would depress residential property values and disrupt the quality of life in the neighborhood. Ideally, all changes to a zoning map would be carried out through this type of comprehensive planning process. In reality, however, such an arrangement is impractical. Market demand shifts too frequently. Therefore, zoning is changed through individual rezoning or variance applications. The result is a process that is often guided by political, not planning considerations. The cacophony of a room full of objecting residents may drown out a good planning discussion.

                Therefore, elected officials should carefully consider whether some form of industrial zoning protection is appropriate, even though such protections will be no cure-all for industrial decline. Nonetheless, industries need adequate supplies of desirable industrial land protected from encroachment by incompatible uses. Even with such protections, industrial areas that remain viable for industrial will continue to become targets for conversion to alternative uses. This inevitable consequence of progress may leave our most valuable manufacturing and industrial users with no choice but to relocate overseas. This does not bode well for the American worker.

For further information, please feel free to contact Neil A. Stein, Esquire at (610) 941-2469 or