Brevity and Clarity

“Brevity” and “clarity” are not words that leap to mind when referring to the character of most zoning ordinance language. Local zoning ordinances have a broad impact on residents, property owners and business owners. Too often the text of such ordinances, having accumulated years of amendments, has become ambiguous and unintelligible. Clear, brief, and unambiguous writing is a key to developing a zoning ordinance that is easy to understand, administrate and enforce.

State-of-the-art zoning regulations must be well organized and easily understood by those who do not possess advanced degrees in either law or community planning. Here are the top ten ways for planning commissioners and elected officials to apply the principles of brevity and clarity to a zoning ordinance:


Read the ordinance: You will be amazed at what you find lurking in the dark, obscure corners of the document!


Eliminate unnecessary words and phrases: Can the regulation be stated in fewer words? Does the text clearly reflect the intent of the ordinance? Many times, the purpose of a particular section can be lost in multiple clauses and phrases, exceptions and double negatives:

  • Eradicate words like “herewith,” “therewith,” “herein,” “hereby,” “heretofore,” “thereof,” and “theretofore” wherever they are found to be hiding!
  • Eliminate phrases like “in furtherance of,” “deemed to be,” “said to be,” and “on account of” where possible.
  • Break up paragraph-long sentences into short declarative sentences, including any sentence containing multiple clauses separated by semi-colons.
  • Stamp out double negatives. Each time the phrase “shall not be considered inconsistent with” is replaced by “shall be consistent with” two words and 17 characters are eliminated from the document!


Touch up the definitions: Words do have meanings, so look in the definitions section for duplications (such as “main building” and “principal building”), and for definitions that are outdated, poorly written or no longer referenced in the ordinance.


Add subject headings and titles: Italicized or bold-printed paragraph headings improve readability, enabling readers to quickly scan the text to find a particular provision.


Consolidate subject areas into a single section: Pick a topic (such as “landscaping” or “screening”) and try to find all of the references in the ordinance. If aspects of the topic are scattered among multiple sections, it may be time to consolidate.


Use a “land use table” format: Consolidate all zoning districts and permitted land uses into one easy-to-read table. It can be done!


Organize other regulations into tables: Look for opportunities to reorganize lists, dimensional standards, and similar text into tables.


Clarify processes with flowcharts: The Zoning Guru has been in the audience of more than one public meeting where even the municipal staff were confused about the proper steps for a complicated approval process. Clarify the paragraphs of text for special use permits, site plan review, PUD, and other zoning ordinance procedures with flowcharts illustrating the steps involved.


Add illustrations: A picture is worth 1,000 words, so adding ten illustrations could reduce the volume of a 70,000-word zoning ordinance by 15% or more!

…and the number one way for planning commissioners and elected officials to apply the principles of brevity and clarity to a zoning ordinance?…


Compare your zoning ordinance to your master plan: If provisions of your zoning ordinance conflict with your community’s master plan goals, objectives, or policies, there is no better time then right now to begin updating one or both of these important documents!

For more information on this topic, contact The Zoning Guru here, or click here to ask about how Building Place can help you turn your zoning ordinance into an effective community building tool.

© 2009-2013 Building Place – Rodney C. Nanney, AICP ( – All rights reserved. Contact us here for information regarding reprinting, redistribution, or other use of this material. Excerpts may be quoted with proper attribution and a link to this website.

About the Author

As the principal planner and Zoning Guru for Building Place Consultants, Rodney C. Nanney, AICP is an innovative provider of solutions to community planning, zoning, and local economic development challenges. Mr. Nanney is a recognized zoning expert and the creator of the Place Zoning model for mixed-use neighborhoods and walkable communities.
An accomplished writer and public speaker, he also has the all-to-rare gift among planners of being able to effectively communicate planning and zoning concepts in plain language. He has spoken before audiences large and small, and as diverse as church groups, college students, elected officials, and elementary-age children.
Email Mr. Nanney today about speaking at your next meeting, conference, or gathering.