Many months ago I wrote about the zoning, or land use, codes of the City of Tucson and Pima County. Since the City is currently working on what has been described as a major simplification and reorganization of its Land Use Code, I thought this would be a good time to revisit just what the land use codes are and what they can and cannot do.

I also wrote  a long time ago about efforts then underway by the City of Tucson and Pima County to designate “Airport Environs Zones.” Those are areas in the vicinity of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base that are affected by the noise from the military aircraft using the Base. Some comments I saw and heard at the time gave me the distinct impression that some people believe the City and County can (and should) control what goes on at the Base, or at least can affect where the aircraft fly. Those comments offer a great opportunity for discussion of the functions, and limitations, of land use codes.

A quick government lesson is in order here, folks. The federal government is superior to the local government. That means that the City and County cannot control what the Air Force does, period. A corollary to that is that where aircraft can fly is decided by either the military or the Federal Aviation Administration, both of which are agencies of the federal government. If you don’t like where planes are flying, call your Congressperson, not the City or the County. As much as they may want to, there is nothing your City councilperson or County supervisor can do to control actions by the federal government.

The federal government, on the other hand, is not in the business of local land use regulation. Local land use regulation is a power delegated to the City and County by the State of Arizona. That power is exercised by all the counties and municipalities in Arizona through zoning or land use codes. This means that if the City and County are regulating (or not regulating) land use in a way that you don’t like, even if the origin of those regulations is due to the presence of the Base, call your City councilperson or County supervisor, not Washington, D.C.

The rules for land use in the City of Tucson are found in the Land Use Code of the City of Tucson. It is 500-plus pages long. The Pima County Zoning Code, which is part of the Pima County Code, is probably about the same length. Each of those codes, but especially the City’s, contains lots of graphs, charts, line drawings, and other fun stuff showing how far your building must be from the front, sides and back of your lot, how large the floor area of your building can be in proportion to the size of your lot, and many other things, including some things you probably never would have thought to make rules about. They also contain lots of cross-references to other sections of the code that may apply to your particular situation, meaning that you can almost never figure out what is allowed on your lot without referring to several different sections.

There are limits, however, to what the City and County can control through these codes. One of the things they cannot control is actions by other government agencies (with a few exceptions). That’s why the City can’t control what goes on at the Base. Like it or not, the location and function of military facilities are decisions made by the federal government based on national security, not by local governments according to their own agendas.

The currently proposed revamping of the City’s Land Use Code, as described in a recent item in the Arizona Daily Star, doesn’t sound like it will result in wholesale changes. Anything that makes it shorter and simpler will be an improvement as far as I am concerned, and is probably about the best result that can be expected. Some would probably advocate for a radical downsizing or even elimination of the code, and would point to Houston, Texas, as an example of a major city in the United States that seems to prosper with no land use regulations. Entrenched interests in Tucson will, however, almost certainly prevent any major reduction in the volume and complexity of the City’s regulations.

As I have discussed in this space previously, zoning has many beneficial effects, but also has its limitations. The City and County can’t tell state or federal agencies what to do, but they can, and do, extensively regulate land use by just about everyone else. If you want to know exactly what the rules are in any given situation, chances are the answers are in the land use codes. It just might take you a while to figure them out.


The situation that last I reported on in my November, 2007, Update, involving tree-sitting protesters, has come to a close.  As reported (with great photos) on zombietime.com, the University of California at Berkeley finally gets to use its land:

The ongoing “tree-sit” protest to stop construction of an athletic training center on the U.C. Berkeley campus finally came to a conclusion on September 9, 2008, when the last tree-sitters came down from the one remaining tree. The scene attracted a huge crowd of sympathizers, detractors, onlookers and media.

A recent legal ruling had cleared the way for the university to begin construction after a seemingly interminable series of delays which lasted over a year and a half. Within hours of the ruling, campus work crews felled all but two of the disputed trees which had occupied the work site — one that was to be transplanted elsewhere, and the other (a redwood) which housed the last four tree-sitters. A few days later, on September 9, after negotiations failed to convince them to come down of their own accord, the police had no choice but to bring them down whether they liked it or not.