The act of designating land into "zones", reserved for different purposes, such as residential or commercial development. Each of these zones has a set of restrictions for new development that differs from other zones.

What is Zoning?

Zoning is a regulatory mechanism that is employed by local planning authorities to direct how certain geographical areas, or “zones”, can be developed.

Different jurisdictions use zoning in different ways, and some don’t use it at all. Where zoning is employed, it will be integral to the urban planning and development of the relevant area and will play a significant role in shaping the layout and functioning of cities and towns.

Implications of zoning

Zoning decisions can have far-reaching implications that ripple through various facets of property ownership, development, and the broader community. Zoning choices therefore necessitate thoughtful debate.

For example:

  • Developers: Zoning regulations influence project feasibility and profitability, significantly impacting their ventures.
  • Community: Zoning can play a pivotal role in crafting the character and quality of neighbourhoods.
  • Society: Beyond the local scale, zoning can influence broader societal issues, including housing affordability, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability.

Zoning laws in Ireland

In Ireland, the Planning and Development Act 2000 (as amended) (the Act) provides the legal framework for land use planning and development, including zoning.

Development plans

Under the Act, local authorities must prepare a development plan every six years. This plan sets out the strategic vision for the area's development, including land zoning objectives. It must be consistent with the National Planning Framework, any applicable regional and spatial economic strategy and specific planning policy requirements.

When a local authority decides an application for planning permission for development, one of the most important factors in their determination will be the extent of the proposal’s compliance with the current development plan, which includes land zoning.

A local authority may refuse to grant permission for a development if it goes against a development plan zoning objective. However, failure to align with a zoning objective does not automatically lead to a refusal of permission. However, the planning authority must undertake a specific material contravention process if it intends to still grant planning permission. Equally, a local authority is not required to grant permission because a development aligns with a development plan zoning objective. Zoning is simply an indication of the type of development that the local authority will likely consider appropriate for a particular area.

Local area plans

In addition to development plans, local authorities may also prepare local area plans for specific areas. These must be consistent with the development plan but are generally more detailed than development plans, and may therefore include more detailed zoning objectives. As with development plans, a local authority must consider the extent to which a proposed development complies with the local area plan, including any zoning objectives, when determining a planning application.

Challenging zoning decisions

In Ireland, there are mechanisms in place for challenging decisions related to zoning.

The local authority will publish a draft plan which is provided to the public as part of a wider consultation exercise. If a person or entity is unhappy with a zoning decision made by a local authority in a draft development plan or local area plan, or a material alteration to such a plan, they can lodge a submission setting out their planning rationale for changing the zoning. If the development plan or local plan is adopted without the requested change in zoning, a person may be able to apply for permission to challenge the plan through judicial review in the High Court. The High Court may grant permission or leave for judicial review and determine whether to quash the local authority’s decision or allow it to stand.

If a person or entity is unhappy with a local authority’s refusal of an application for planning permission for development on the basis that the development does not align with zoning, they can appeal the decision to the national planning appeals board, known as An Bord Pleanála. This process cannot be used to question the zoning itself, but only to challenge the assessment of the application. An Bord Pleanála can affirm, modify, or overturn the local authority’s decision.

What are the common types of zoning in Ireland?

In Ireland, local authorities may implement several types of zoning in onshore areas, each with its own set of restrictions. These include amongst others:

  • Residential zoning
  • Commercial zoning
  • Industrial zoning
  • Agricultural zoning
  • Recreational zoning
  • Open space zoning, or
  • A mixture of those uses

The specific uses and restrictions of a zone may vary from one authority area to the next. The relevant plan will explain how the local authority has defined each zone for the purpose of their plan.

What is the future of zoning in Ireland?

Zoning is, by definition, a forward-looking activity intended to allow and encourage local authorities to strategically manage future development in their area. It is an iterative and fluid process which can react to the changing needs of the area. Zoning identified in a plan does not have to be maintained in all future plans in that area. Land can be de-zoned, or categorised as a different zone, as needs and objectives change.

There are several trends and challenges that will likely be important features of the future of zoning in Ireland:

Affordable housing and zoning

One of the pressing challenges facing Ireland is the need for more affordable housing options. As urban areas continue to grow and housing shortages persist, zoning will be under scrutiny to facilitate increased numbers of affordable and accessible residential developments.

Sustainable development and low-Carbon economy

Transitioning to a low-carbon economy is a national priority, and zoning is crucial in supporting this transition. This may be through the identification of areas where renewable energy development will be supported.

Flexible and innovative zoning approaches

As development grows in scale and complexity, traditional zoning methods may be supplemented or replaced by more adaptable approaches. This may include exploring the concept of mixed-use zoning, where diverse land uses coexist within the same area.

The role of zoning in Ireland's future

Zoning has the potential to significantly influence the layout and functioning of cities and towns, as well as social, economic, and environmental outcomes.

Under the current legal framework for land use planning and development under the Planning and Development Act 2000 (as amended), zoning is integral to the proper management of land use and development throughout Ireland.

The proposed Planning and Development Bill 2023, as currently drafted, aims to place even more importance on strategic land use planning and zoning.

The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice.