Reduced Zoning and Subdivision Requirements

Issues Addressed:
Affordable Housing Housing Costs Housing Options Redevelopment Sustainable Housing

What is it?

Reducing zoning and subdivision requirements is a process of matching local land use rules with the existing built character of a place, with community needs, with contemporary real estate economics, and with a community’s vision for its future. This process of “right-sizing” regulations can open up housing opportunities. Too often, a community’s land use regulations will mandate development that doesn’t complement well-loved neighborhoods and architecture, unnecessarily increasing housing costs, and removing open space. Sometimes, these regulations have been passed from one community to the next out of convenience, without much thought to the particularities of the place. Often, these regulations have not been substantially revised in decades.  According to a study from the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulatory Index, New Hampshire is one of the most regulated states for home construction. Today many municipalities in our State have super-sized regulations, especially for new residential construction, which add significantly to the cost of housing and can limit housing production altogether.

Most cities and towns in New Hampshire have historic downtowns and villages that are cherished by residents. If your community’s historic downtown or village couldn’t be built under its current standards, you may not have right-sized regulations.  As well as looking to the past, look to the future vision in your community’s master plan, which should also include specific recommendations for achieving that vision. 

To get development that a community actually wants, an audit of current regulations is critical. Scrutiny should be given to numerical values in ordinances, such as those for minimum lot size, setbacks, lot coverage, height restrictions, road design standards, and parking requirements.

How can it help?

Reducing zoning and subdivision requirements can…

  • Effectively increase housing production
  • Lower land and construction costs for new housing
  • Provide more diverse housing options
  • Help reduce economic segregation
  • Nurture and complement historic districts and traditional architecture
  • Reduce the impact of unnecessary pavement, including on groundwater and flooding

Getting Started

  1. The community’s master plan and any district-level plans or studies can serve as guides for right-sizing regulations. These plans may have already identified problematic rules that should be modified.
  2. If you are currently undertaking a master plan, include right-sizing regulations as a recommendation or even include specific regulatory changes that should be made.
  3. Audit your zoning code, subdivision regulations, and any other land use controls that impact lot size, street frontages, heights, setbacks, parking, etc.
    1. If possible, use geographic information systems (GIS) to assess whether current neighborhoods and housing could be built under present regulations.
    2. Assess whether desired housing could be built, given present land use regulations, the latest version of the building code, and market conditions.
    3. If possible, use build-out analyses to project land needed to support reasonable growth under current regulations versus other housing types/scenarios.
    4. If possible, conduct a parking study to determine areas where parking may be over- or under-built.
    5. Make note of specific controls that cause issues (minimum land area, minimum parking requirements, setbacks, etc.).
    6. Make note of any specific locations (neighborhoods, landmarks) that have regulatory issues.
  4. Conduct a community engagement process to present your findings and gather feedback. 
    1. If land use regulations would not permit specific landmarks or common housing types, communicate those discrepancies. 
    2. Gather feedback on what regulations there is support for changing, if any.
  5. Draft and adopt amendments to zoning, subdivision rules, etc. to reflect the community’s desires.
  6. Periodically audit regulations to ensure they are a good fit for your community.
An analysis of onerous dimensional regulations on a residential block (top) in New Brunswick, NJ. After accounting for all the zoning rules, only the 20’-deep yellow area (bottom) remained buildable, preventing redevelopment of a vacant lot. (Images via Strong Towns:


  • Design charrettes can help build support for relaxing regulations
  • Numerical values in ordinances are based on assumptions that may no longer be valid, check them carefully.
  • Make sure to right-size your permitting fees; they can significantly add to the cost of housing.
  • Also, your review process should be the right size; time is money and lengthy local reviews of projects add to the cost of every home.