What Is a Special Use Permit?

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 What Are Zoning Ordinances?

A zoning ordinance is a rule that regulates how property in a location may be used. The zoning areas are defined by the property’s geographic location or its specific coordinates on the map.

These ordinances allow the local government to limit and regulate what activities are performed within the jurisdiction. It is common to have zoning ordinances in residential neighborhoods.

Many individuals have likely seen the effects of a zoning code, whether they realize it or not. For example, a housing community may have a similar aesthetic or price range.

In these types of communities, homes may have similar layouts and looks. The houses may be slightly different and may be painted with different colors.

Typically, a homeowner in this type of neighborhood will be able to choose from approved color choices.

How Does Zoning Work?

Zoning may occur before land use, prior to building, or when an area is already established. In these cases, the city or county will divide a particular parcel of land into zones, or districts.

Then, the government will determine what the land and the structures placed upon it may be used for. Local governments may use these types of ordinances to structure the way in which cities operate.

It is common for zoning ordinances to be used to separate commercial use zones from residential use zones.

What Is a Special Use Permit in Real Estate?

A special use zoning permit allows a piece of property or land to be used in a manner that deviates from the normally accepted use in the area. In other words, these types of permits create exceptions to zoning ordinances and regulations.

Typically, these permits are issued and overseen by local zoning authorities and bodies. One common example of a special use permit is when a zoning authority allows a business to operate in an area that is not normally zoned for business activities, such as residential areas.

Another common example is when a church is permitted to operate in an area that is otherwise marked for businesses. A special use permit may also be referred to as a conditional use permit.

When Are Special Use Permits Allowed?

If an individual needs to have their property zoned for a special use, they can complete a special use permit application. The special use permit requirements may vary by location.

A special use permit may issued after a careful analysis of numerous factors, including:

  • The type of building use or land use that is in question;
  • The type of business operations or conduct that will be occurring at that location;
  • The impact of the activities on the local:
    • community;
    • neighborhood; or
    • business complex;
  • Whether or not the activities would disrupt the overall theme and purpose of that zone; and
  • Whether the land use or business operations were in existence before the zoning ordinance was passed.

How Can I Get Around a Zoning Ordinance?

If an individual wants to use their property in a way that is not permitted by zoning regulations, they have several options, including:

  • Request a zoning variance: A zoning variance, as previously stated, is a request for an exemption to the zoning restrictions;
    • A zoning variance allows a property owner to diverge from the applicable zoning limitations in order to use their land in a manner that the zoning code would otherwise prohibit;
  • Rezoning: This process shifts a property’s authorized use from one zone to another. For instance, if an individual owns property in a residential zone and wishes to utilize it for commercial purposes, they may need to go through the rezoning procedure to modify the property’s categorization;
    • A public hearing is usually held as part of the rezoning process;
    • Permission from the local government is necessary; and
  • Challenge the zoning law: An individual may be able to challenge a zoning ordinance in court if they feel it is discriminatory or otherwise illegal. This can be a time-consuming and complicated process, so an individual should contact an attorney to see whether a legal challenge suits their situation.

It is important to note that zoning restrictions are put in place to protect a community’s health, safety, and welfare. It may be helpful for an individual to consult with a local attorney to determine the available possibilities in your area as well as the zoning regulations.

Can a Special Use Permit Be Revoked or Overturned?

Yes, special use permits may sometimes be revoked or overturned. This may occur, for example, if a later analysis determines that the use of the land will conflict with other zoning ordinances or laws.

A special use permit may be lost if the holder of that permit commits any violations or abuses the permit in some way. On the other hand, if a zoning board determines that an ordinance is outdated or is no longer applicable, the board may overrule the ordinance.

This may also have an impact on the community as a whole. These types of decisions regarding zoning regulations can be extensive and may require legal action.

Who Makes Zoning Decisions?

Zoning divisions are made by local government authorities, for example:

  • Municipal or county planning departments;
  • A board of supervisors; or
  • A city council.

These types of organizations are in charge of creating and implementing zoning restrictions in their area. In many circumstances, planning commissions, or groups of volunteers or appointed individuals educated in land use planning and development, make zoning decisions.

The planning commission will:

  • Examine the proposed zoning code amendments;
  • Offer recommendations to the governing body; and
  • Organize public hearings on zoning issues.

The governing body, for example, a city council or county board of supervisors with the jurisdiction to accept or disapprove zoning amendments, typically decides on a zoning problem. Zoning division may be appealed to a higher court if the owner of the property feels the decision was:

  • Arbitrary;
  • Capricious; or
  • Otherwise not in compliance with the law.

It is important to note that community involvement may also affect zoning decisions, for example, via public hearings and comment periods. Residents and stakeholders can submit their comments and express their opinions on proposed zoning changes and this input may influence the final decision.

What Are the Consequences of Violating Zoning Laws?

A violation of zoning laws may have serious consequences, both immediately and further down the road, including:

  • Criminal penalties, such as criminal fines or jail time;
  • Civil penalties, such as injunctions or other actions to prevent the zoning violation from continuing, for example, ordering the owner to remove an illegal addition;
  • Consequences for allowable use, such as when the zoning agency withholds building or other permits from a violating property; and
  • Reduction in the value of property;
    • If the property owner cannot assure a buyer that the property conforms to zoning laws, they 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.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with a Special Use Permit?

Special use zoning permits require substantial analysis and may involve interaction and cooperation with a local zoning board. If you are interested in seeking a special use zoning permit, it may be helpful to consult with a real estate lawyer.

If you are already in the process of seeking one or need to appeal a decision, your lawyer can also help. Your lawyer can advise you of the laws and requirements in your area as well as help you obtain a permit.

In addition, if you have to attend a court meeting or a hearing or file a lawsuit, your lawyer will be present to represent you.


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