March 16, 2022

Boom in Home Delivery Just One Change Prompting Zoning Code Modernization

4 min

Home-delivered goods were having a moment, even before the pandemic. But soon after locking down in early 2020, Americans began relying on home delivery like never before. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, retail sales via e-commerce increased by 32% from the first quarter in 2020 to the second quarter. Online Black Friday sales jumped 22% that November.

"There is a great need for deliveries and the statistics show that delivery services are booming during the pandemic," according to a December 2021 article in Transportation Research about American adoption of home delivery.

The boom in home delivery was a lifeline to many retailers, but it also meant a lot of work for local governments that had to scramble to keep up with the resulting zoning issues. In October, Virginia's Prince William County updated its zoning ordinance to account for last-mile delivery facilities and distribution facilities, with similar changes taking place in Fairfax County.

"[The] industry is changing and evolving because our buying habits are evolving," Prince William County Planning Director Parag Agrawal told InsideNoVa.

Playing Zoning Code Catch-up

Many jurisdictions in Northern Virginia have launched efforts in recent years to modernize local zoning ordinances to address issues that could not be conceived of even a decade ago.

Zoning laws became common in the United States only in the last century, with the 1926 Euclid case establishing the right of local governments to legislate development. Despite their status as a relative newcomer to the legal field, many zoning codes remain mired in the past.

A review of zoning codes throughout the country often shows documents oriented toward solving issues from a bygone era, and often reads like a history book. For example, a code may distinguish between zones that prohibit tanneries but allow lithography. But that same code may fail to address more modern uses like solar facilities or cannabis sales. This conflict is inevitable, as the advance of technological and social changes tends to outpace that of government regulation, particularly at the local level.

Prince William County is also in the process of creating zoning regulations around data center development, recognizing the crucial role that information networks play in the capital area's infrastructure.

These revisions are necessary to address not only technological advances, but changes in the way we live as well. For example, the Arlington County zoning ordinance was recently updated to permit certain single-family homes to create accessory dwelling units. This allows for the creation of separate units on the same lot to support aging parents or children moving back home. Arlington is also considering changes to the definition of a "family" to better establish what constitutes a single-family home.

Rapid increases in population in Northern Virginia have led to far more dense, urbanized environments. That, in turn, has led jurisdictions to re-think traditional notions of parking requirements. Changes to the Fairfax County zoning ordinance to allow for reductions in off-street parking requirements are currently being reviewed by county officials. This follows on the heels of updates in Arlington County that allow for dramatic reductions in both residential and office parking requirements in its Metro corridors.

Sometimes the level of change required to modernize a zoning code cannot be done piecemeal, and requires a full overhaul to bring regulations up to date. Loudoun County is in the process of a zoning ordinance rewrite, which will allow for updated processes, definitions, and the incorporation of its recently adopted Comprehensive Plan.

Advancement in social, economic, and technological spheres will continue to challenge the ability of local governments to properly recognize and regulate in the face of change. The velocity of these advances will only increase over time, and efficient administration will continue to require agile thinking and a willingness to confront and address change in an effective manner.

If you have questions about how zoning codes are modernizing, or any other land use issue, please get in touch with Kedrick Whitmore or another member of Venable's Land Use and Zoning Practice Group.