Performance zoning--land use regulation based upon the application of specific performance standards--represents another alternative to traditional zoning. Performance zoning provides for greater flexibility, avoiding the detailed specification of acceptable uses for specific parcels inherent in traditional zoning. It provides for the exercise of greater discretion by the regulatory jurisdiction at the time developments are proposed while at the same time establishing specific standards for the exercise of this discretion. This addresses many of the problems that have been identified with traditional zoning. The increased flexibility should also allow for land development and use to be more responsive to market forces, resulting in more economically efficient outcomes. Furthermore, performance zoning provides a framework for the establishment of a system for the exchange of certain rights that could allow for even greater responsiveness to the market while preserving the public objectives sought in a system of land use control.
Under performance zoning, land development and use are regulated by a series of performance standards relating to specific impacts of a proposed development. Performance standards can, for example, limit the intensity of development, control the impacts of development on nearby land uses, limit the effects of development on public infrastructure, and protect the natural environment. Performance standards can be negative or positive. They can set a maximum level for the noise impacts on adjacent property or they can require specified types of buffers to be established between certain types of land uses.
Performance zoning dispenses with the large numbers of narrowly-defined and highly-specific use districts typical of traditional zoning. In its purest form, performance zoning may allow all possible uses and establish a uniform system of performance standards throughout a jurisdiction (Acker 1991). Some systems of performance zoning, however, do provide for the specification of a relatively small number of more generalized zones, with some broad restrictions on types of use and different performance standards in the different zones (Kendig 1980).
The key aspect of performance zoning lies in its regulation of land use through the establishment of standards intended to achieve specific public objectives. If one public objective is to limit the negative impacts of land uses on adjoining uses, attempts are made to define the undesirable levels of such impacts and develop standards to prohibit these. For purposes of assuring that development takes place within the capacity of the public infrastructure, such capacity levels are established. Then development is limited based upon these specific infrastructure-based impacts and limitations. For example, the effect of development on the transportation system could be controlled using standards involving maximum levels of trip generation per acre.
From the perspective of trying to achieve public objectives relating to land use, performance zoning is more flexible and ultimately more powerful than traditional zoning. Performance standards can potentially be established to achieve virtually any legitimate public objective. This is in contrast to traditional zoning, where the tools of specifying use and use intensity in zoning districts are relatively crude tools for assuring land uses that meet certain public objectives.
Because of the flexibility of performance zoning as a tool for regulating land use, a variety of very different systems have been developed and implemented. Kendig (1980) describes one approach that was originally developed in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Comparative descriptions of some early applications of performance zoning have been provided by the Oregon State University Extension Service (Stackham 1974). A more recent study by the Urban Land Institute (Porter, Phillips, and Lassar 1988) describes performance zoning systems in seven communities.
By not restricting land use in any area to a narrowly-specified set of uses as does traditional zoning, performance zoning allows landowners much greater flexibility. Various commentators (Acker 1991, Eggers 1990) have suggested that this allows performance zoning to operate with less intrusion on the land market. The result would be greater economic efficiency in land development and use than under a system of traditional zoning. Yannacone, Rahenkamp, and Cerchione (1976) further suggest that performance zoning may be a useful alternative in reducing the extent of suburban exclusion associated with traditional zoning.
The types of restrictions imposed under a system of performance zoning are not unlike the restrictions that are included in private covenants. Of course, performance zoning involves government regulation, imposed and enforced by government, while private covenants are agreements among private landowners, enforceable by those parties. Because performance zoning is imposed through government action, performance zoning can affect all properties and provide a uniform level of standards throughout a jurisdiction. This overcomes a problem with the reliance upon covenants to provide protection, the very great difficulty of reaching agreement on and imposing private covenants within an area that has already been developed and with ownership dispersed among many parties. Those attracted by the advantages of covenants, as presented by Seigan (1972) and Nelson (1984), might consider the possible advantages of performance zoning in allowing such restrictions to be imposed on all landowners in a jurisdiction.