Business Zoning Laws

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 What Are Business Zoning Laws?

Business zoning laws define where in a locality business activities can and cannot be carried on legally. Most cities and counties divide the land within their borders geographically into at least two major types of zones, residential zones and business/commercial zones. Business activities are generally restricted to business zones only.

This means that business activities cannot usually be conducted in residential areas where residential structures, such as houses, apartment complexes, condominiums, and townhouses, predominate. Some cities and counties also have areas zoned for other types of activities such as industrial operations, light industrial and agricultural.

Zoning codes not only regulate activities and types of structures. They also regulate land use, the height and size of buildings, population density, parking requirements, signage placement and the character of development on private property, as well as property uses. So a business should familiarize itself with all applicable zoning laws and not only those that apply to property uses.

Another source of rules that limit the uses that can be made of property are homeowner association and condominium association regulations. These associations have covenants, conditions and restrictions, and the owner of a property in the association agrees to respect the rules when they purchase their property. These covenants typically restrict the uses that owners can make of their properties and prohibit most business activity if the character of the community is residential.

Violation of association use restrictions can lead a property owner into legal conflict with the board of directors of an association, which has the authority to enforce restrictions. There may be penalties for violations of covenants, conditions and restrictions.

There are associations of properties that have been developed for business purposes, but these are usually for businesses such as professional offices, e.g. offices for doctors, dentists, accountants, engineers, real estate brokers and the like.

What Is the Purpose of Business Zoning?

One of the main goals behind zoning laws that assign certain types of activities to certain zones is to keep residential neighborhoods isolated from regular business, commercial or industrial activities. Business operations often create noise, a high volume of traffic, pollution, and other concerns that are unsuitable for residential areas. People hope to escape these characteristics in their homes. Another important goal is the preservation of public health and safety.

Business zoning laws also help to keep businesses organized in central locations throughout the city. These conditions can often help businesses to thrive and grow on their own.

What Qualifies as a “Business Activity”?

Most county and municipal zoning ordinances or regulations define “business activity” as any activity that is performed as part of a commercial enterprise for the purpose of making a profit. This does not have to include only final sales of goods and services, but can also include intermediate steps such as:

  • Packaging;
  • Labeling;
  • Transportation;
  • Sorting.

Business activities refer to all of the various activities that companies from large to small engage in to achieve their purposes. They generate revenue and ensure business continuity. Examples of common business activities include production, marketing, and sales. In our modern economy, business products are often categorized as either goods or services.

Other common examples are operating, investing, and financing activities. Operating activities are the core activities performed by a company on a daily basis in support of its primary purpose. Financing activities are associated with obtaining the funds necessary for operations and business growth. Finally, investing activities take place whenever the entity invests in long-term assets.

If any of these types of operations are conducted in a non-business zone, it can affect the company’s business license, although It may be possible to apply for a home business license under certain circumstances. A zoning variance might be another option.

How Do I Get a Zoning Variance?

A property owner may request a change in the zoning of their real property by filing an application for a variance with the local zoning authority, e.g. the zoning board. A variance is a use that is not one currently permitted by the local zoning regulations that apply to a particular area.

A zoning variance would allow the property owner to use their land in a manner that ordinarily does not conform to what is permitted by the existing zoning ordinances. A variance is not a change in the property’s zoning, but is rather a waiver of a certain zoning requirement for one property owner.

In most cities and counties, a request for a variance would require that notice be given to nearby property owners of the requested change. There would then have to be public hearings to obtain input from the community. There is a risk that neighboring owners and occupiers of property would oppose the change in use if they think it would have a negative impact on their property values or their quiet enjoyment of their own property.

Use variances are less often granted than variances relating to size, for example. And a use variance that would allow a business to operate in a residential area is unlikely to succeed. Still, requesting a variance is certainly an option a business owner has.

An approach that might yield better results than seeking a variance for a property that does not have the appropriate zoning for a business might be to research the type of zoning that a particular business use requires in a given city or county. Then the business owner might want to look for suitable business premises in those areas that are zoned appropriately for the use they want to make of their property.

What If Business Zoning Laws Are Violated?

The exact consequences of a business zoning violation depends on the local zoning laws in the location where the violation takes place. But violations of business zoning laws can result in the following:

  • A business license might be repealed or suspended for a period of time;
  • Monetary fines might be imposed on the owner;
  • An owner might be charged with a civil violation, especially if people or property have been damaged or injured due to the unauthorized business activity;
  • An injunction to cease the unauthorized business activity, e.g. an injunction ordering a business owner to cease unauthorized pollution.

The zoning violation can even lead to criminal charges. Criminal charges can lead to criminal punishments including the imposition of fines or even a term of imprisonment. The local zoning agency might have the authority to refuse to issue future building permits to the offender. The owner might be forced to sell the property for less than its fair market value.

A person may not be able to sell property that violates zoning ordinances at all if the offender cannot demonstrate that the property conforms to existing zoning laws.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance with Business Zoning Laws?

Business zoning regulations can be very different from city to city and county to county. If you have any questions regarding zoning laws or any other business concerns, you should consult an experienced business lawyer.

Your attorney can provide you with the legal guidance and advice that is necessary for your particular needs. Also, your lawyer can represent you in any administrative hearings before a zoning board, if you need to seek a variance under local zoning laws.


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