Once again, traditionally, landowners had the right to do whatever they wished with their property. However, due to the rapid development of industrialization in the United States, this private use without any public intervention caused serious concerns. As such, there became a need for property to be subject to land use regulation, not just private restrictions.

Zoning Basics

To address the issue, zoning ordinances were first passed with the idea that each homeowner would have its own garden, away from commercial or industrial areas. This idea was called the “garden city” first established in England. As such, zoning ordinances were passed to protect this garden, starting first in New York in 1916, then expanding greatly throughout the 1920s.

Constitutionality of Zoning

Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co.

272 U.S. 365 (1926).

Ambler won in trial and Euclid appealed.


Is the ordinance an unconstitutional use of state police powers?


If there is a rational basis for the ordinance, it is constitutional.


There is a rational basis for the ordinance. Thus, the ordinance is constitutional and the injunction against zoning is reversed.


Euclid passed zoning laws that contained several categories. These categories may be applied to the strips of land:

  • U1 – Single family housing
  • U2 – Two family housing
  • U3 – Apartments
  • U4 – Government buildings
  • U5 – Light industrialization
  • U6 – Normal industrialization

Ambler had purchased a large portion of land for the intention of developing it into a tract for industrialization. However, the zoning ordinances passed divided the land, allowing the majority of the land to be used for two-family dwellings, apartments, light commercial activities, and light industrialization activities. Normal industrialization activities was altogether banned from the property.

The zoning of the property in this manner significantly decreased Ambler’s value of the land. Consequently, they challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance saying that it was an invalid use of police powers.


The city had a rational reason for limiting how the property was used on this tract. Specifically, the city was concerned with overdeveloping industrialization and focused on the importance of more residential homes in the area. Among these concerns were health reasons and to ensure the safety of the communities.

Because there was a rational basis for the ordinance, it is constitutional.

Additional Notes

Euclid was a major development of how zoning laws were allowed. Ultimately, Euclidian zoning was the standard (and still is in most places). This is a rigid standard. As long as there is a rational basis based on health, safety, and public welfare (police powers) the ordinance will likely be found constitutional.

Here, Alder is arguing that the 14th Amendment provides substantive due process (by removing liberty and property rights) and equal protection. This protection would prevent the ordinance from going into effect. However, as mentioned, the court rejects that argument based on the police powers utilizing a rational basis test. The rational basis test just asks if the ordinance was arbitrary & unreasonable. That simply means if there was a reasonable connection between the ordinance and the intended goal. Ultimately, very few zoning ordinances will be found unconstitutional.

Typical Zoning Ordinance

A zoning ordinance is a city legislative act containing:

  1. the text of the ordinance (setting out the zone types) and
  2. maps that implement the ordinance.

Nonconforming Uses

If a property is not conforming with the zoning ordinances before the zoning ordinance was passed, then that property is protected from the ordinance (no need to adjust to comply). This protection passes from one owner to the next.

Rigid or Flexible Zoning

To preserve the intergrity of zoning, the zoning founders limited how parties may escape a zoning ordinance: through amendment, variance, or special exception.

Zoning Amendments

Although amendments may be made to the original ordinance, these amendments are discouraged. First, many amendments would decrease the legitimacy of the comprehensive zoning plan. Second, many amendments may influence bribery (if a land is valued more for one use rather than another). As such, any amendment needs to follow the same approach taken in Euclid. Fewer jurisdictions only allow amendments if there are significantly changed conditions or a mistake was made in the ordinal zoning ordinance.


Zoning law allows city lawmakers to provide variances, or options, for applications if literal enforcement would produce significant hardship on the property owner.

Detwiler v. Zoning Hearing Board of Lower Salford Township

596 A.2d 1156 (Penn. 1991).

Detwilers sued, lost, and appealed.


Was the hearing board and the appellate court wrong to allow the variance?


“To establish a right to a variance, a landowner must show that the effect of a zoning ordinance is to burden property

  1. with an unnecessary hardship
  2. that is unique to the property;
  3. that the hardship was not self-inflicted;
  4. that the granting of the variance will not have an adverse impact on the public health, safety and welfare;
  5. and that the variance sought is the minimum variance that will afford relief.”

Here, a variance is allowed. Consequently, the admittance of the variance was not in error.


Detwiler lives across the street from the Miller’s property. His home has been there since a German immigrant built it in 1717. Consequently, the home now has historic status.

The Millers own the property across the street. Currently, the property is zoned for either agricultural or residential purposes. However, the shape of the property is so odd that there is no way the property may be used for residential purposes. Nonetheless, the Millers wished to build a home on the land. With the current ordinance, their home would be no wider than 10 feet. Consequently, they requested a variance to adjust the dimensional boundaries so a home may be built. This variance was granted.

Detwiler, who did not want the home built across from the property, fought back.


Detwiler attacks each element associated with the granting of the variance. Here, the court addresses each in turn.

First, there was an unnecessary hardship. This case provides an example where the home may not be built in accordance with a zoning purpose. Although there is another available purpose, agriculture, the limitation on the other use was an unnecessary hardship.

Second, the hardship is unique to the property. There is no denying that the property was uniquely shaped. Because of the shortness of the property, the situation was created.

Third, the hardship was not self inflicted. Detwiler argues that the hardship was self-inflicted because the Millers knew about the dimensional requirements before purchase. However, because the Millers did not purchase the land with a high price, knowing of the issue, they did not self-inflict the hardship. This is further evidenced by the Millers already using the land for several years before the request for variance was made.

Fourth, granting the variance does not adversely affect the public welfare or interest. Although the Detwiler’s home is a historic site, there was no evidence that granting the variance would adversely affect the value of his property, others value, or deter visitors from viewing the home. Additionally, it appears that Detwiler’s objection is self-interested, he just does not want a home across the property.

Finally, the minimal variance was allowed. This was an alteration in dimension, not the use of the zoning ordinance (variance for use may have higher standards).

Conditional Uses or Special Exceptions

Zoning ordinances write in exceptions. If individuals meet and apply for those exceptions, they may be authorized to use the property in a way different from the original intention. In other words, a different use is conditioned on meeting different zoning requirements authorized in the zoning ordinance.

New Approaches to Land Use Regulation

Zoning laws a moving more towards flexibility. As such, the following tools may be used to alter preexisting zoning ordinances.

  1. Conditional zoning – see above
  2. Floating zone – A zone that is detailed but not applied to the land until someone applies for it.
  3. Cluster zone – A residential zone that limited the number of homes but allows the developer to choose where those homes are located.
  4. Planned unit development – A cluster zone that authorizes the developer to apply the zone for all uses (residential and commercial alike).


The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.