Best planning and implementation toolbox

Overlay District Ordinances:

Purpose of Tool:
Overlay Districts provide a means to incorporate various development regulations across a specified area. These districts are special zones that lie on top of existing zoning categories to supplement or supersede existing regulations. They usually provide a higher level of regulation than that required by the existing zoning classification, but they can also permit exceptions or require a less-restrictive guideline. In cases where conflicting standards are given by an overlay district and the underlying zoning category, those of the overlay district take priority. The boundaries of an overlay district may or may not coincide with the boundaries of the underlying zone, and an overlay district may contain parts of more than one existing zone.

Overlay districts are used to accomplish a variety of development, transportation, and land use goals such as access management, protection of historic or natural resources, safety, standardization of a historic district, implementation of development guidelines, protection of the quality of surface water, and even special taxing or financing for an area. Overlay districts often complement a jurisdiction’s Comprehensive Plan.

Benefits of Using Tool:
Overlay districts are particularly useful to communities and municipalities because they allow existing zoning requirements to be superseded, when needed. Overlay districts can be implemented by passing a law that appends existing land use regulations, without having to go through the process of rewriting the underlying zoning requirements/regulations. Communities can also modify overlay districts without difficulty, should they decide to modify the requirements or coverage area.

Overlay Districts can accomplish the following elements:
  • Provide design guidelines that create a particular look and feel of an area
  • Protect valuable resources
  • Help meet goals and objectives of the community
  • Maintain certain current codes while addressing a special need of a particular area within a zone(s)

    Steps Involved to Use Tool:
    To be implemented, an overlay district typically follows this process:
  • A study or report is compiled that details the purpose and goals of the overlay district, and ensures that it is tied to the objectives of the Comprehensive Plan or the stated goals of the community.
  • The boundary is simply and clearly defined, which is known as “spatial definition.”
  • Applicant information is compiled into a formal application to demonstrate the need for the overlay district.
  • The community’s reviewing body (typically a review board comprised of citizens and/or planning staff, or possibly the planning commission) evaluates for compliance with current standards.
  • The local governing body (City Council) must approve the application before it is voted on.

    Special Requirements to Use Tool:
    The primary requirement for using an overlay district is that there must be a zoning ordinance in place prior to implementation. Quite simply, if there is no zoning to be overlaid, an overlay district is not possible. Additionally, there must also be a clear and defensible purpose for implementing the overlay district such as stated goals and objectives from a local plan or study.

    Specials Resources Needed to Use Tool:
    Because of the review process necessary to implement and manage an overlay district, this tool is best suited for communities or agencies that have an adequate professional planning staff. Typically, interpretation of technical issues associated with the application and overlay ordinance requirements is required; therefore an experienced planner on staff would be beneficial.

    Communities / Agencies that Have Used Tool:
    Many communities and agencies have successfully used this tool. Some examples are:
  • Parkway Village Design District, Roswell, Georgia: This overlay district was implemented to provide a uniform landscape and urban design along six miles of SR 92 in north suburban Atlanta.  Contact:

    Bradford Townsend - Roswell Planning & Zoning Director
    770-641-3774 38 Hill Street, Suite G-30
    Roswell, GA 30075

  • Highlands Garden Village, Denver, Colorado: This is Denver’s first mixed-use overlay zone with commercial, residential, historic, and educational facilities as part of this urban village that was once an amusement park.  Contact:

    Tracy Huggins - Executive Director
    Denver Urban Renewal Authority
    1437 Bannock St
    Denver, CO 80202

  • Union Square Arts Overlay District, Somerville, Massachusetts: This district seeks to preserve and promote the arts by providing incentives for high-density retail, commercial, and housing with arts-related benefits.  Contact:

    Monica Lamboy - Executive Director
    Somerville Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development
    617-625-6600 ext. 2500
    93 Highland Avenue
    Somerville, MA 02143

    Metrics to Use to Monitor Tool Effectiveness:
    Because there is such a wide variety of the types of overlay districts that can be implemented, the ways to measure their performance are also widespread. For example, for districts whose purpose is to regulate a particular “look and feel” for corridors or communities, set design standards, as well as oversight in the plan review process, are essential in ensuring that the objectives of the overlay district are met. Quantitative elements can also be monitored for success through implementation of the overlay ordinance, including the following examples: lot size, building height and area, parking, number of access points (or consolidation of access points), and types of land uses.

    List of Resources to Obtain Additional Info:
    Additional helpful information can be found here:
  • Atlanta Regional Commission, “Community Choices: Quality Growth Toolkit, Uses of Overlay Districts.”
  • Center for Land Use and Education, “Planning Implementation Tools: Overlay Zoning.”
  • Union Square Arts Overlay District map displays how an overlay fits in with existing zoning.
  • Indiana Department of Transportation I-69 Planning Toolbox, “Overlay Zones.” I-69 Planning Toolbox