There are two ways that the local government agency in charge of zoning might learn about a violation of its zoning laws:
- Resident complaint - most zoning agencies have a process by which local residents or property owners can file a complaint about property that may be violating zoning laws
- Agency inspection - agency officials may have the right to conduct inspections of certain businesses, even without the owner's consent, to check for zoning violations
Violating zoning laws can have many serious consequences, both in the immediate future and further down the road:
- Criminal penalties - criminal fines or jail time
- Civil penalties - injunctions or other action to prevent the zoning violation from continuing, such as ordering the owner to remove an illegal addition
- Consequences for allowable use - the zoning agency may withhold building or other permits from a violating property
- Value of property - if the owner cannot assure buyers that the property conforms to zoning laws, he may have to sell it for less than its actual value or take it off the market , even if the local zoning agency is not currently aware of the violation, buyers will be reluctant to buy property for which they may later be responsible
If the local zoning agency determines that your property violates its zoning laws, you can usually appeal that determination, either to the agency or in court. Oftentimes, an appeal to the zoning agency is required before the property owner can challenge the determination in court.
Another option is to seek a permit for conditional use or a variance, which would make the violating use permissible. Zoning agencies may allow a property owner to do this as part of appealing the finding that he violated the law.
As a result of the appeal, the zoning agency may stay legal proceedings against the property owner until a final judgment is entered, either by the agency or a court of law.
If you have been charged with violating local zoning laws, it is very important that you consult a real estate attorney who can help you minimize the consequences of a negative judgment.