While we’re on the topic of arcane municipal government processes, I feel like zoning seems like a pretty big area of opportunity. Obviously there is a ton of commentary broadly about zoning laws, but it seems like folks here in town only get into around very specific areas and issues.

Greenfield zoning is divided into the following districts:

Rural Residential District - RC
Suburban Residential District - RB
Urban Residential District - RA
Semi-Residential District - SR
Health Service District - H
Central Commercial District - CC
Limited Commercial District - LC
General Commercial District - GC
Office District - O
General Industry District - GI
Planned Industry District - PI
Floodplain District - F
Water Supply Protection District - WP
Corridor Overlay District - CO

That is according to Division 1, Part III, Chapter 200-4 of the Greenfield City Code. A bit further down (Chapter 200-5), it states that the zoning map is on file with the Clerk’s Office.

And down in Chapter 200-9 is where the City Code lists all the details of what you can and can’t do in each type of district.

I feel like the thing with all of this zoning stuff is that it is super-technical and wonky, but it totally determines what you can build where in town. Pretty much every community in the country has a really sketchy history of using obscure zoning ordinances to keep black people out, or to keep poor people out, or to protect the rights of the most privileged people who already have the most influence.

So on the one hand, it is good that some company can’t buy the lot that is for sale down the block from me and build a biomass incinerator, or that some neighbor can’t randomly decide to run a nightclub out of their basement.

On the other hand, we end up with stuff like the Accessory Dwelling Unit fight from a few years ago, when thee was a proposal before the City Council to allow the addition of attached and detached apartments on residential property by right rather than by special permit. It would have been a great way to increase housing density in a city like Greenfield which has a lot of older single-family homes and not much space for new multi-family construction.

Unfortunately, that proposal was defeated after a group of homeowner—almost entirely white, affluent, and older homeowners, it is worth noting—lobbied hard against it, arguing that having a neighbor be able to build additional housing on their property would lower the value of their own property. Mind you, no one was yet trying to actually build anything; these folks wanted to preserve their right to object should anyone even try.

So it’s complicated on two levels:

  1. The complexity of the zoning ordinance themselves, i.e., what can be built where and through what sort of approval/permitting process
  2. The complexity of how to change either the zoning ordinances and the permitting processes themselves

It feels similar to watching people play one of those super-complicated tabletop games where it takes two and a half hours just to explain the rules.

And you’ve got a map of the whole town divided up into a patchwork of different zoning districts, a zoning ordinance written in abstract legislative language, and even a chart of all the kinds of stuff you can and can’t build in each of the color-coded boxes. The whole thing is administrated by a professional class that went to school for urban planning.

And again, while some of these rules may have been created out of ill intent or put to nefarious uses over the years, many of them were likely set up for understandable reasons, like so your neighbor can’t run a store out of their house and overrun your street with traffic, or so no one can build a paper mill on Main Street.

But it is also why, in those pictures that regularly get shared on social media, European towns that have existed since 1294 look so much cooler than any town here.