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Use of zoning overlay districts can be innovative ordinance tool for cities

Overlay Districts are in many ways like any zoning district – they provide development regulations within a specified boundary. These districts are special zones that lie on top of existing zoning districts to modify the underlying district requirements. An overlay zone may or may not match the boundaries of an underlying zoning district.

Overlay zones typically provide a higher level of regulation (more restrictive) than the existing zoning classification, but they can also permit exceptions or be less restrictive.  In cases where conflicting standards are given by an overlay district and the underlying zoning category, those of the overlay district typically control.

Overlay Zoning - City Zoning Techniques - Graphic

Overlay Zoning Concept

Overlay districts are used to accomplish a variety of goals.  They are usually prompted by recommendations or policies in a community’s master plan or a special study.  Examples of goals related to overlay regulations include water quality protection, traffic safety / access management, appearance standards, signs, historic preservation, building height, and land use.  For example, an overlay district may permit greater building height or additional land uses if certain conditions are met.

Basic Steps to Create a New Overlay District

  1.  Establish a policy framework through a planning study or master plan update.
  2.  Spatially define the area of the overlay district. What is the basis for the boundaries?
  3. Consider whether the same policy framework could be achieved through amendment to a zoning district or a new district.
  4. Review and answer these important questions:   How will the new standards guide development in a way that reflects the vision and/or policy?  What will the overlay district regulate and how is it different from the underlying zoning?  Will regulations be more restrictive, less restrictive or some of both? Will the overlay district be mandatory or optional?
  5. Determine the approval process.
  6. Prepare and adopt amendments.
  7. Prepare and approve applications forms and procedures.

 Common Questions

Can two or more overlay districts affect a single parcel?

Yes, it is possible to have more than one overlay district impact a single parcel.  A flood protection overlay and a corridor overlay could both impact one or more parcels.

Does an overlay district require developments to receive special approval?

It depends on the goals of the ordinance.  It can, for example, allow additional uses by right as an incentive for achieving district goals or – due to the unique goals of the district – it can require special land use or PUD approval in order to receive approval.

What happens when there is a conflict between an overlay district and the underlying zoning district?

In most cases the overlay district controls, but the ordinance needs to specifically address this issue and state which provisions are controlling in the case of a conflict.

As with any regulatory tool, it is important to consult with your local professional planner and local attorney prior to adopting new overlay zoning regulations.