Traditional zoning, often referred to as "Euclidean zoning" after the approach approved in the Supreme Court decision, has been subject to regular criticism over the past several decades since John Reps (1964) declared his "Requiem for Zoning." Many of the problems that have been identified relate to the inflexibility of the system that separates distinct categories of land uses into physically separated zones and to the difficulties associated with making these decisions in advance of development.
The separation of land uses established by traditional zoning combined with rigid controls on development in the individual zones creates undesirable patterns of development. Reps (1964) argued that zoning "balkanizes" cities into separate use districts, preventing mixtures of uses even when that would be more desirable. That rigid zoning requirements prevent design innovation was noted decades ago in an American Society of Planning Officials report (1968). More recently, zoning has been repeatedly criticized as a barrier to quality design, especially the traditional neighborhood design proposed by the "new urbanists" (Diamond and Noonan, 1996; Duany and Plater-Zyberk, 1992). This criticism of zoning has recently found expression in the popular media in the Atlantic Monthly article by James Kunstler (1996).
A zoning ordinance theoretically establishes the allowed uses for each parcel of land within a jurisdiction and would then be self-executing. Variances and rezoning amendments would be available to deal with the occasional circumstances in which the existing zoning posed a hardship for the property owner or when changed circumstances warranted the allowing of another use. However, in many jurisdictions, the practice of zoning has evolved into one in which the control over development effectively takes place through the granting of rezonings rather than by the original ordinance (Reps, 1964, Wakeford, 1990). Ellickson and Tarlock (1981) suggest that this is the norm in most metropolitan areas, at least for major developments. In a study of development in Fairfax County, Virginia, Clawson (1971) describes how the granting of thousands of rezonings over a brief period of time led to a zoning map that by 1963 bore little resemblance to the original comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance established in 1958 and 1959. An unpublished student research project (Ehle, 1996) found that in Indianapolis, over 40 percent of major new developments other than individual single-family homes took place on land that had recently been rezoned. In perhaps the greatest irony, the parcel subject to dispute in Euclid v. Ambler Realty because it had been zoned for residential use is now the site of a General Motors plant (Brooks, 1989).
Many jurisdictions with significant amounts of undeveloped land have further institutionalized the use of rezonings to control new development by placing the undeveloped land into very low-intensity holding zones that force prospective developers to seek rezonings for virtually all new development (Nelson, 1989). The National Commission on Urban Problems (1968) described this as a "wait and see" approach to zoning designed to give municipalities control over new development. Ellickson and Tarlock (1981) go farther in describing this as a "dealmaking" strategy where the jurisdiction extracts concessions from developers in return for the granting of the required rezoning.
In response to these problems with zoning, Reps (1964) and many others have proposed allowing greater discretion over land use decisions to local zoning authorities. The trend has been toward the development of new devices that provide for greater flexibility for development and for the administration of zoning. Indeed, in a brief review, Martin (1968) lists over twenty zoning techniques intended to provide greater flexibility.