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Cityscape: Volume 25 Number 3 | 100 Years of Federal-Model Zoning | Single-Family Zoning and the Police Power: Early Debates in Boston and Seattle


100 Years of Federal-Model Zoning

Volume 25 Number 3

Mark D. Shroder
Michelle P. Matuga

Single-Family Zoning and the Police Power: Early Debates in Boston and Seattle

John Infranca
Suffolk University Law School

In the early 20th century, proponents of zoning sought to justify what was arguably the most controversial component of zoning ordinances: districts restricted exclusively to single-family residences. This article examines how the national discourse over the legal merits of zoning affected debates on the ground in two cities: Seattle, Washington, and Boston, Massachusetts. In the context of government deliberation and in the popular press, proponents of zoning in these cities defended this new form of regulation as a valid exercise of the police power: the traditional power of government to regulate in furtherance of health, safety, and the general welfare. They responded to criticism that use districting problematically differentiated between neighborhoods and favored a narrow class of people. Emphasizing the comprehensive nature of their zoning ordinances, they also sought to expand the role of planning experts and encourage deference to expert determinations.

In Boston, height limits preceded zoning, and debates over their merits foreshadowed early arguments about use districting (the division of a jurisdiction based on the permitted uses of land). In Seattle, disputes ensued over whether to have only one or multiple residential districts, and if residential uses were differentiated, whether the most restrictive district should also allow two-family residences. Drawing on archival research, this article examines how zoning proponents enlisted justifications for single-family zoning in these two cities articulated by prominent national leaders in the zoning movement. This history suggests lessons for contemporary zoning reform efforts

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