Monday, November 6, 2017

John R. Nolon on Contemporary Issues in Teaching Land Use: Question 5:  How to Create a Practical Context for Learning?

While updating the recently released ninth edition to the casebook Land Use and Sustainable Development Law, the four co-authors engaged in numerous spirited discussions about teaching land use. We wanted to open this discussion to others to get their comments and thoughts as we continue to rethink the teaching of this important subject. Each month on this blog, we will introduce a new topic relevant to teaching land use. The topics will loosely follow our casebook chapters, and we are now up to Chapter 2. We'll explore each topic through four blog posts, one from each of us. We hope you find the discussion enriching, and encourage you to contribute to the conversation in the comments section below or off-line.  -- John NolonPatricia SalkinStephen Miller, & Jonathan Rosenbloom.]

Contemporary Issues in Teaching Land Use

Question 5:  How to Create a Practical Context for Learning?

by John R. Nolon

One problem that Chapter 3, The Basics of Zoning, presents is how to create a practical context for the students so they can understand the real life application of amending zoning, securing variances, handling nonconforming uses, and the pop-up novel land uses permitted by accessory use and home occupation provisions of zoning ordinances.  It helps for students to have and review an actual zoning ordinance and use it to find the sections that pertain to these basic techniques, which are the lifeblood of land use practice. Some of us use a single prototype and others encourage students to find one from a community they know or have an interest in. The cases in this chapter make it clear that this is a study of local law and that the language contained in specific codes is critical.  Learning to read what the local law says exactly is a critical skill that can be taught by tracking the student's code as they read and brief each of the cases in the chapter.

Another terrific approach is to require students to attend, and write a report on, a local zoning or planning board meeting.  They inevitably come back with observations about a variance proceeding, or a matter that involved a nonconforming use or home occupation.  This puts the material in the chapter into a real life context that is essential to learning the basics. 

The chapter also provides an opportunity to explore the similarities and differences between state laws and local practice in different states.  Consider the Larsen v. Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment as compared to Sasso v. Osgood involving the Town of Henderson in New York.  The common DNA of variances across boundaries is obvious, but so too are the local differences: the nuances that practitioners must grasp to carry their burden of proof, if they have one, to meet state statutory standards, or to get the evidence on the record needed to support the board's decision in court if challenged.

The Toys "R" Us v. Silva case is loaded with entertainment value as well as real learning.  It involves the complex administrative machinery of the New York City Zoning Resolution and the minions and agencies involved in its administration.  What can be more exciting that a dispute between residents of brownstones on 80th street and a large retailer fronting on Third Avenue?  The case involves a five-month-long public hearing, piles of evidence including warehouse logs, an upper east side site visit, the Board of Standards and Appeals, a reference to the City's Charter, a coalition of neighborhood associations dubbed "Neighbors-R-Us," opinions and operations of the DOB (Department of Buildings), shenanigans involving Chase Manhattan Bank, and, of course, the lesson that the words found in the local law, once again, matter.


The ninth edition of Land Use and Sustainable Development Law, is now available for the 2017-18 academic year.  Feel free to contact any of the co-authors if you would like to discuss the book--or just teaching land use law in general.

Land Use Book Image

Previous posts in the Contemporary Issues in Teaching Land Use series

Question 1: Teaching the Crossroads Where Nuisance & Zoning Meet [Rosenbloom | Nolon | Salkin | Miller]

Question 2:  Teaching the 1916 NYC Zoning Ordinance and the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act [Rosenbloom | Nolon | Salkin | Miller]

Question 3:  Teaching the Economics of Land Use Regulation and Ethics [ Salkin | Nolon | Miller | Rosenbloom]

Question 4:  Teaching about the Comprehensive Land Use Plan [Salkin | Nolon | Miller | Rosenbloom] 

Question 5:  How to Create a Practical Context for Learning? [Nolon | Miller | Rosenbloom | Salkin]

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If it's a large enough class, maybe have three or so students be the "zoning board" and another group be the applicant, another the "neighbors", and conduct the process through the hearing, appeal, and final decision. Experiencing the process from the decisionmakers' viewpoint can be valuable. The exercise could be short or simple enough that the students could rotate through zoning board duties so everyone gets a chance to be board member, applicant, or neighbor (and maybe even judicial reviewer).

Posted by: Geoff Schroeder | Nov 6, 2017 3:45:22 AM