A zoning ordinance has been put into place when an area is “zoned.” These laws determine how a piece of land can be used or how the building on the land can look. Typically, zoning laws are already in place before spot zoning can occur.

Generally speaking, spot zoning is the use of a smaller piece of land for a more thorough purpose then what the surrounding lands might be used for. While it is unusual, it should be noted that sometimes the piece of land can be used in a less demanding way than the lands around it.

For example, suppose that Will lives in a neighborhood that is zoned for residential use only, but his neighboring house is not being occupied for residential purposes. Instead, the home has been converted into a coffee shop. This could be spot zoning. Through this example, we see that spot zoning allows for one plot of land to be granted an exception, excusing that “spot” from being the same as the zoned area.

How Does Spot Zoning Work?

Local governments, such as city and county governments, are responsible for laws pertaining to zoning. When a court considers if spot zoning should be accepted, they often look at several factors. This includes:

  • If the surrounding neighborhood would be negatively affected;
  • Whether the community would agree with the activities; and
  • Whether a variance could be granted.

A variance is granted when the government finds the zoning ordinance to be so strict, and it would create a substantial hardship on the property owner. For example, in Will’s neighborhood, the coffee shop has the make-up of a residential house on the outside, on the inside, it has been completely remodeled. So much so, to convert it back to a residential home would create a substantial burden, and could effectively make it unsellable for residential use.

Is Spot Zoning Legal?

Spot zoning is a gray area in law because it varies so much between different jurisdictions. While most jurisdictions find spot zoning is legal, there is much debate on the actual practice. Because zoning ordinances can severely restrict land use in many ways, it is often criticized that spot zoning is unfair. An exception to the strict regulations can indicate special treatment and favoritism.

What Are Some Issues With Spot Zoning?

Sometimes courts will mistake spot zoning as rezoning. Rezoning is the act of changing the already restricted property to a category of restrictions, that is not approved by law. The issue is, when one property does not match the common plan of the surrounding properties, this throws up a red flag. Making sure the correct paperwork is filled out proves that the spot zoning is in accordance with a plan and discredits any concerns the court may have.

For example, when the court is looking through the zoning plans for Will’s neighborhood, it realizes the coffee shop, a commercial business, is located in a residential zone. If the coffee shop can prove they have proper documentation of spot zoning, there is no foul play.

Additionally, because spot zoning is a law theory unique to every jurisdiction, courts aren’t always consistent in deciding whether the spot is valid. Sometimes courts read maps as zoning maps, regardless of whether there is a spot zoning applicable to the map. This can cause some confusion.

If the zoning map expressed interest in a mutual plan for the area, and the spot zoning challenges that scheme, the court could rule it to be invalid. This is because courts sometimes find that zoning to a particular plan means that only zoning in that way should be reasonable.

For example, if, in reviewing Will’s neighborhood, the local court found the coffee shop did not meet the common plan of a residential area, they could rule it as invalid. At that point, the coffee shop owners could be subject to fines, penalties, or forced to move their business.

Because spot zoning falls under a certain type of zoning law, the consequences of violations are identical to those of zoning law defiance. If a court finds a particular spot zoning to be invalid, the property owner may be subject to:

  • Civil penalties;
  • Serious financial hardship;
  • Costly remodels;
  • loss of business or home; and
  • Long term effects on business owners.

Do I need a Lawyer to Assist Me with Spot Zoning Laws?

Spot zoning may be necessary for certain types of land purposes. If you are looking for help with local zoning laws, a real estate lawyer may be the best person to contact. A qualified attorney will help explain your options under the laws in your area. An attorney’s services are vital when applying for spot zoning, seeking a variance, or preventing spot zoning from happening in your area.