Zoning is a system used to classify pieces of privately owned real estate. Cities, counties and states using zoning to classify property according to its “land use.”

States creates laws, or “statutes,” to regulate zoning, and cities pass “ordinances,” which are similar to laws, but have less power. A state law would trump a city ordinance in a dispute.

The major classifications for types of property are residential (for peoples’ residences) and commercial (for businesses). Another major classification is “industrial,” for properties with factories or other buildings which require special considerations. Additional categories are agricultural, and recreational.

There are also subdivisions within these broad categories. For example, within the residential classification, you would have different types of housing including single-family and multiple-family dwellings.

Zoning disputes sometimes arise for a number of reasons. Some of the most common reasons are listed below.

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What are Some Common Zoning Disputes?

Zoning disputes may involve a dispute between two private, single-family homeowners, as in when two neighbors have a dispute over where the property line is. More often, disputes occur between a private commercial property and the local city government.

These types of zoning disputes typically involve a commercial building that is located very near to residential neighborhoods. Below are some common zoning disputes:

  • The commercial business owner’s parking lot is near a residential area
  • Residential owners’ views are obstructed because a commercial building is too tall
  • Commercial signs are placed so that they clutter a neighborhood
  • “Setback” issues: Setback refers to the minimum distance that a building can be located from a property line. Most setback ordinances are meant to avoid disputes over access to sunlight or ventilation. They may also be somewhat aesthetic in nature, i.e., to avoid an “overcrowded” appearance of a certain zone. They may also involve the distance of a building from the roadway for safety purposes
  • Industrial, agricultural or commercial properties cause noise, air and water pollution to nearby properties

How are Zoning Disputes Resolved?

For a small, property-lines-between-neighbors-variety dispute, the typical first step is to file a claim with the city, or other local government. This type of dispute will often call upon the parties involved to resolve the dispute among themselves. If this fails, the local government may then intervene to resolve the matter.

Of course, the neighbors may also file a civil lawsuit to begin with. Particularly in matters where discrimination of some kind is suspected, this will be more common. Lawsuits are also more common in cases where one party’s resources far outweigh the others. An example of this would be a residential homeowner filing a suit against a large commercial retailer next door.

In a zoning lawsuit, the typical remedy is a court injunction ordering one of the parties to cease illegal or unlawful activities (such as illegal dumping or toxic pollution). In many zoning lawsuits, damages awards can be issued if the dispute caused one of the parties to experience economic losses.

Because zoning ordinances can affect entire groups of a local population, many zoning lawsuits are filed as a class action lawsuit.

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How Can a Lawyer Help with Zoning Disputes?

A local real estate attorney in your area will be familiar with local zoning laws and ordinances. They can help you determine the zoning laws that apply to your property, evaluate your dispute, and suggest remedies. They can also represent you if you need to file a lawsuit, after you have already requested/petitioned for a zoning change with your local city government.