Planning and Zoning Basics

While the Code of Iowa regulates certain land use activities, many cities establish additional procedural regulations for the handling of zoning issues. It is important to be familiar with the city’s zoning ordinance and local rules of procedure for the Planning & Zoning Commission and the Board of Adjustment. It is also important for city officials to work with the city attorney on zoning matters and provide appropriate training and information to its commission and board members.

The Need for Zoning Laws

Zoning regulates how land may be used within an area and provides for orderly development while limiting congestion. It prevents incompatible uses from locating near one another and therefore protects property values. Zoning can facilitate and maximize the provision of public services such as water, sewer, parks and fire protection. It also helps provide public safety and health to the community.

Establishing Zoning Codes

The process to establish municipal zoning is outlined in Code Chapter 414. The first step is to appoint a planning and zoning (P&Z) commission and adopt a comprehensive plan, which is a document that sets long-term goals for city growth and development. It may address projected land uses and utility plans, housing, parks and recreation plans, open space and agricultural land conservation, promoting safety and preventing flooding, and other issues. Comprehensive plans are updated to keep current with changing local conditions. Various consultants, engineering firms, regional planning agencies and others can help cities develop and update comprehensive plans.

Following the completion of a comprehensive plan, the city council may pursue the adoption of a zoning ordinance that is in accordance with the comprehensive plan. The city council can only adopt zoning ordinances prepared by the P&Z commission and must hold public hearings on zoning ordinances and amendments to ordinances. The notice required for public hearings on zoning matters is not less than seven and no more than 20 days prior to the hearing.

A zoning ordinance prescribes the construction, repair, location and use of buildings and land. A zoning ordinance often divides the city into districts, such as those for residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural property. Depending on the city, a zoning ordinance might further divide these general uses of property and/or create a variety of other districts for special uses, such as historic districts. Regulations for each type of district may be different, but regulations within a district apply equally to like properties.

The P&Z Commission

The P&Z commission is an odd-numbered body appointed by the city council which prepares the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances and recommends changes to the plan and ordinances. The P&Z commission can only make recommendations which must be approved by the city council to be effective. Beyond typical zoning issues, the P&Z commission may be called upon to review and provide recommendations on Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts and Self-Supported Municipal Improvement Districts (SMID).

The Board of Adjustment

It is impossible to write a zoning ordinance that fits all cases and all parcels of land. Therefore cities appoint a Board of Adjustment (BOA) to alleviate cases of hardship created by literal interpretation of zoning ordinances and to provide a venue for citizens to be heard when they disagree with how a zoning ordinance affects their property. The BOA is a five, seven or nine member board appointed by the city council to serve staggered terms.

City councils can review variances granted by the BOA and accept them or return them to the board for further study. If a variance is returned to the BOA, it may not be implemented for 30 days. However, the BOA has final authority in its decisions, and those decisions do not require approval of the city council.

A disagreement with a BOA decision may be appealed to the district court. The decision can only be heard by the court if the aggrieved party files a petition with the court within 30 days after the decision of the BOA. The petition must declare that the decision of the BOA was illegal and state the reasons why it was illegal.

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