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Ultimate Guide to Zoning and Land Use Laws

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What Are Zoning and Land Use Laws?

Zoning ordinances are regulations for land use within cities and counties. Zoning categorizes and separates different land uses into districts within a city and county. Land use laws and regulations govern the way that land can be used in any given area. These laws are usually maintained by local governments and by municipal codes. Local governments typically provide separate districts for residential, business, and industrial uses.

What Are the Most Common Uses Found in Zoning Ordinances?

  • Cumulative Uses: Cumulative zoning is a method of zoning where any use that is permitted in a higher use, less intensive zone is also permissible in a lower use, more intensive zone.  Uses are generally ranked on a hierarchy of uses ranging from single family residential (highest) to heavy industrial (lowest). Higher uses are usually permitted in lower districts. When all or some higher uses are prohibited in lower zones, the zone is referred to as non-cumulative or exclusive.
  • Conditional Uses and Special Exceptions: A conditional use is a zoning exception that allows the property owner to use their land in a way not otherwise permitted within the particular zoning district. Uses such as hospitals, schools, and churches are permitted in most zones, but there must be special consideration of the project by a local regulatory agency. The impact of the project will be evaluated, as well as the need for the creation for special restrictions to negate any adverse effects.
  • Non-Conforming Uses: A nonconforming use is a use of property that was allowed under the zoning regulations at the time the use was established, but which, due to changes in local regulations, is no longer a permitted use. Local governments and the courts are reluctant to order an owner to discontinue an activity immediately or demolish a building that was lawful until the enactment of the ordinance that made the use illegal. Therefore, the use is usually permitted and is recognized as a nonconforming use.

What Are the Most Common Types of Zones?

The most common types of zones encountered in land use regulations are:

  • Use Districts: These dictate the type of use permitted within the zone. These consist of residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural.
  • Height Districts: Building heights are a type of land use regulation. These regulations restrict the height of buildings within any given area.
  • Land Coverage: Land coverage and bulk regulations taken on various forms. These include:
    • Minimum floor space
    • Minimum lot space
    • Floor-area ratio
    • Open space
    • Cluster
  • Floating Zones: Floating zones are found where a noncompliant use is permitted within a specific zoning area.
  • 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.

How Can I Get Around a Zoning Ordinance?

If you own property that is subject to a zoning ordinance and that ordinance is preventing you from using your land the way you intend, you may attempt to circumvent the zoning ordinance through a variance or an amendment or rezoning.

  • Variance: A variance is granted to a landowner by a board and permits the owner to continue a use that is prohibited by a zoning ordinance. The owner must show that enforcement of the ordinance would cause unnecessary hardship due to the unique features of the property making it difficult to use the property as zoned. Additionally, the board must show that a grant of a variance will not adversely affect neighboring properties or the effectiveness of the zoning ordinance.
  • Amendments and Rezoning: A landowner may request the local municipal body to amend the zoning ordinance applying to their land. The following few instances have permitted rezoning:
    • Neighbor Protest: If closely situated neighbors protest the zoning ordinance, there may be a rezoning amendment.
    • Mistake or Change of Condition: It must be shown that there was a mistake or change of condition in the land in question. This is often a required justification in some jurisdictions.
    • Administrative Act: Some jurisdictions have a legislative body make the decisions for an amendment or rezoning instead of allowing the local court to do so.
    • Spot Zoning: When zoning appears to confer preferential treatment onto a parcel that is not afforded to others, it may be found to be spot zoning, and invalid as a result.

Who Makes Zoning Decisions?

Zoning decisions are typically made by the planning or zoning department within municipalities. These departments propose zoning ordinances and oversee zoning and land use hearings. These departments will also make the decisions regarding variances, conditional use permits, and other issues related to zoning ordinances and land use laws.

Procedurally, first, a public hearing is held where the individual can present their case to the department. There is also an option for public comment regarding the individual’s complaints or proposal. The decision made by the department may be appealed to a court if it is unfavorable to the individual.

What Are Permissible Restrictions?

Nonconforming uses are generally disfavored, and, therefore, a variety of restrictive techniques may be implemented and which are generally upheld. The most common restrictive techniques include:

  • Resumption
  • Enlargement
  • Amortization

What Is a Land Use Plan?

In regards to land use regulations, land use plans are implemented which determine how land is to be used, allotted, and improved by private or government entities. A land use plan can be implemented to ensure that zoning ordinances are being followed. A well-executed land use plan is essential for certain industries, including farming, mining and natural gas.

Most local city governments likely have a land use plan in place that aids in structuring how the city will operate. For example, some cities will have a goal to be a “green city,” meaning they are environmentally conscious and practice conservation. The land use plan will outline how the city operates to promote an environmentally friendly development. Businesses must 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, the individual is usually subject to an injunction, which orders the individual to do something or not to do something. Additionally, violations of land use regulations could subject a person to damages if a party has suffered an economic loss as a result of the violation. Both private and government entities are subject to lawsuits for land use violations.

Should I Consult an Attorney?

Land use regulations and zoning ordinances can be complicated. Consulting with a real property attorney can offer some guidance regarding land use regulations and zoning ordinances. Whether you are planning on investing in land, starting a business, are subject to a zoning ordinance, or are facing legal penalties for violating a land use regulation, an attorney can aid you through the process to protect your rights.

Photo of page author Kirin McKenna

, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 08-18-2015 09:28 AM PDT

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