Land use vs. zoning: There are differences between designations

Published 9:02 am Wednesday, July 8, 2015

by Amanda Jarratt

When prospective businesses and industries from a variety of sectors are looking to invest in a community there are many factors placed under consideration by site selectors. Two critical factors that weigh very heavily on such decisions are the amount of available real estate and whether or not said real estate is publicly owned and properly zoned for the intended use. Currently, we have approximately 150 acres in Pretlow Industrial Park located within the City of Franklin, 80 developable acres remain in the Southampton Commerce and Logistics Center and 27 developable acres are available at the Southampton Business Park.

Fortunately for our community there are other areas available for development both of an industrial or commercial nature in the City of Franklin and Southampton County, and those are listed on our website and within the statewide data based call My Virginia Scan. Unfortunately, many of these areas are not ready for development and they have different degrees of access to utilities and critical infrastructure. Having access to land is undoubtedly a positive feature of our community, but ensuring such land is ready and positioned for development is what takes these parcels of land from just a positive feature to an asset.

With the recent review of the Comprehensive Plans’ of both the City of Franklin and Southampton County there has been much discussion about land use designations versus zoning designations.

To clarify, there is a significant difference between the two. Land use designations included in the Comprehensive Plan are plans for the future. Whereas zoning designations more specifically define what use is currently allowed on a specific parcel, and outline design and development guidelines for those intended uses such as setbacks, minimum lot sizes, buffering and landscaping requirements, etc.

Zoning designations are what you can legally do with your parcel today; the Land Use designation, in conjunction with development guidelines, details how you may be able to use your parcel in the future.

The comprehensive plan is a guide or recommendation for the use of the zoning ordinance and, to a lesser extent, the subdivision ordinance. It suggests, in general terms, proposed uses for land within the locality, as well as the proposed location of utilities and public facilities such as schools, fire stations and parks. The plan also makes long-term projections of population growth. The zoning ordinance actually establishes the rules governing the use of land. The zoning ordinance divides a locality into different zoning districts and spells out allowable uses for each district such as agriculture, industry or commercial use. The zoning ordinance is not a mere recommendation as is the comprehensive plan. In the case of a conflict concerning land use between the comprehensive plan and the zoning ordinance, the zoning ordinance controls. The subdivision ordinance governs the process for dividing land from larger parcels into lots. While the subdivision ordinance is entirely separate from the zoning ordinance, the zoning ordinance establishes the minimum lot size for each zoning district.

With all of this being said, areas that were designated as future industrial, commercial or employment centers in the localities’ Comprehensive Plans are simply that. A designation. For a zoning designation to be changed, an application must be filed by the owner or agent of the land and a public hearing process occurs at both the Planning Commission and elected body level. Just because property has been designated in the Comprehensive Plan for future growth and development does not mean that it is ready to be marketed or would even be seriously considered by someone for development. Ownership, zoning, available utilities and transportation are all criteria that must still be considered and analyzed prior to such notion being taken seriously.

Understanding the differences between the designations is imperative for our community to remain proactive in locating businesses and industry to our area. The more knowledge and understanding we have in our tool belts the better prepared we will be as a unit to influence positive change in the City of Franklin Southampton County.

Amanda Jarratt is the CEO and president of Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc. She can be reached at or 562-1958.