History of Land Use Regulation

Land use planning is not a new concept- in fact, there are land use regulations that date to medieval time in Europe. In the United States, there are several key pieces of legislation that have shaped land use law as we know it today.

Standard State Enabling Act & Standard City Planning Enabling Act
In 1921, an Advisory Committee on City Planning and Zoning was created by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. The advisory committee was tasked with drafting model planning and zoning statutes that could then be adopted by states. With the adoption of these statutes, municipalities would then be enabled with the power to create master plans and comprehensive zoning plans for their jurisdictions.

The committee began by tackling zoning. A Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (SSZEA) was first printed in 1924 and had nine sections. It included a grant of power, a provision that the legislative body could divide the local government's territory into districts, a statement of purpose for the zoning regulations, and procedures for establishing and amending the zoning regulations. A legislative body was required to establish a zoning commission to advise it on the initial development of zoning regulations.

Following the completion of SSZEA, the committee focused its attention on city planning. The resulting document, A Standard City Planning Enabling Act (SCPEA), was published in 1928. The SCPEA covered six subjects: 
  • the organization and power of the planning commission, which was directed to prepare and adopt a "master plan"
  • the content of the master plan for the physical development of the territory
  • provision for adoption of a master street plan by the governing body
  • provision for approval of all public improvements by the planning commission
  • control of private subdivision of land
  • provision for the establishment of a regional planning commission and a regional plan

Both the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act and the Standard City Planning Enabling Act are available online at the American Planning Association's website.

In addition, the article “The Real Story Behind the Standard Planning and Zoning Acts of the 1920s” provides the history behind the enabling acts and the committee that wrote them.

Euclid vs. Ambler
In 1926, Ambler Realty Company sued the Village of Euclid, Ohio. The Village of Euclid had instituted zoning regulations that involved the re-zoning of many tracts of land from industrial uses to residential ones. Ambler Realty, who owned 65-acres of previously industrial land, believed that this was unconstitutional, and sued the Village of Euclid.

The case eventually was heard in the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was decided in favor of the Village of Euclid. In deciding the case, the Court concluded that zoning: 
  • is a valid exercise of a community’s police power to ensure ordered growth
  • did not constitute a taking of property without just compensation, and
  • did not violate due process or equal protection provisions

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Euclid vs. Ambler is available online.

Planning Timeline
The APA website has a comprehensive timeline of the history of planning in the United States, entitled Pathways in American Planning History: A Thematic Chronology