How to Find Zoning Laws and Ordinances

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 What Are Zoning Laws?

Zoning laws, or zoning codes, regulate the location, size, and use of structures within certain defined areas. Zoning laws can vary by state and even by municipalities.

A zoning ordinance is a regulation governing land use within a city or a county. Zoning categories and separates the various different land uses into districts within a county or a city.

Law use regulations and laws govern the way that land may be used in a specified area. The laws are typically maintained by the local government and by municipal codes.

Local governments typically have separate districts for different uses, including:

  • Residential;
  • Business; and
  • Industrial.

It is important to note that gated communities and homeowner’s associations may also have additional zoning laws and ordinances that must be considered. One example of a zoning code that is regulated by the local government is a setback ordinance.

These determine how close an individual can build to their property lines. Because there are numerous laws and regulations, it may be helpful for an individual to consult with a zoning ordinance lawyer.

A zoning ordinance lawyer can provide advice regarding real estate development. This many include:

  • Zoning laws;
  • Building ordinances;
  • Construction permits; and
  • Other land use ordinances.

Both companies and individuals can benefit from having the assistance of a zoning lawyer. Zoning lawyers can help an individual request a variance if they wish to do something with their property that does not conform to local requirements.

What Are Some Examples of Zoning Variances?

In many cases, exceptions to zoning laws are granted when the zoning ordinance creates a unique hardship for a property owner. If this occurs, the agency that oversees the zoning laws may grant them a zoning variance.

One example of a zoning area variance may arise if there is a unique hardship for the property owner. For example, if the property owner has an oddly-shaped, smaller lot than most of the other ones in the neighborhood, they want to build a shed but cannot do so without violating the requirement to build at least 15 feet from the property boundary line.

Because of the owner’s unique lot shape, they cannot adhere to the zoning regulation and may request a variance to build their shed. A zoning area variance may allow for a relaxation of the zoning regulations that may apply to dimensional restrictions if the property owner can show that adherence is impossible or impracticable, as in the example above.

Whether or not a zoning variance is granted will depend on several factors, including the property itself as well as the purpose of the ordinance.

Where Do Zoning Laws and Ordinances Apply?

An individual may be wondering, “[w]hat are the zoning laws or restrictions in my area?” To find the answer to this question, an individual can check at the offices of their city or town government.

Places to begin the search may include:

  • The mayor’s office;
  • The city attorney’s office; and
  • The department of housing.

In addition, some public libraries may have materials related to the local ordinances. It is becoming more common for zoning laws to be posted online.

If an individual is a member of a gated community or a homeowner’s association, their covenants, conditions and restrictions will outline any zoning laws and ordinances specific to the neighborhood.

Relevant Types of Zoning Laws and Ordinances

There are numerous different kinds of zoning laws and ordinances. Some of the more common local zoning ordinances include:

  • Building restrictions;
  • Noise restrictions;
  • Animal and pet regulations;
  • Trash and refuse regulations; and
  • Easements.

What Are the Most Common Types of Zones?

The most common types of zones that an individual will encounter in land use regulations include:

  • Use districts: These dictate the type of use permitted within the zone. These consist of:
    • residential;
    • commercial;
    • industrial; and
    • agricultural;
  • Height districts: Building height is a type of land use regulation. These regulations restrict the height of buildings within any given area;
  • Land coverage: Land coverage and bulk regulations come in various forms, including:
    • Minimum floor space;
    • Minimum lot space;
    • Floor-area ratio;
    • Open space; and
    • Cluster;
  • Floating zones: Floating zones are found where a noncompliant use is permitted within a specific zoning area; and
  • Holding zones: To restrict development in certain areas before there has been an opportunity to zone or plan it, the planning department within a municipality may temporarily zone the land for low intensity uses.

Who Makes Zoning Decisions?

Typically, zoning decisions are made by the planning or zoning department within a municipality. These departments will propose zoning ordinances and will oversee zoning and land use hearings.

In addition, these departments make decisions regarding:

  • Variances;
  • Conditional use permits; and
  • Other issues related to zoning ordinances and land use laws.

If an individual proposes a zoning ordinance, there are several steps to the process. A public hearing will be held where the individual can present their case or complaint to the zoning department.

There is an option for the public to comment regarding the complaints or proposal the individual submits. The decision that is made by the department may be appealed to a court if it is not favorable to the individual.

What Is a Land Use Plan?

A land use plan is used to determine how land is to be allotted, used, and improved by a private or government entity. Land use plans can be implemented to ensure that the zoning ordinances are being followed.

Well-executed land use plans are essential for certain industries, including:

  • Farming;
  • Mining; and
  • Natural gas.

The majority of local city governments likely have a land use plan that helps structure how the city will operate. For example, in some cities, there may be a goal to be a green city, meaning it is environmentally conscious and practices conservation.

The land use plan outlines how the city operates to promote an environmentally friendly development. Businesses are required to adhere to the principles in the land use plan.

What Are Penalties for Violating Land Use Regulations?

If an individual violates a land use regulation, they are typically subject to an injunction. An injunction orders an individual to do something or to stop doing something.

In addition, violations of land use regulations may subject an individual to damages if a party suffered an economic loss because of the violation. Both government entities and private entities are subject to a lawsuit for a land use violation.

If a zoning ordinance is violated, the offending party may be subject to:

  • Serious financial damages;
  • Suffer civil penalties;
  • Make costly updates;
  • Sell the property early; or
  • Have to physically remove a building.

In addition to these consequences, a zoning board may deny future permits. This means that the violation may have a long-term effect on the individual or business.

How Can a Lawyer Help?

If you have any issues, questions, or concerns related to zoning laws and ordinances, it may be helpful to consult with a local real estate lawyer. Your lawyer can advise you of the local zoning requirements and your legal options.

Zoning laws can have a great impact on the value of your property. If you would like to use your property in a way that does not conform to the local zoning ordinances, your lawyer can help you request a variance.

If you have been accused of violating a zoning ordinance, your lawyer can assist you in defending against the lawsuit.

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