Zoning Lawyers

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 What are Property Zoning Laws?

Zoning is a term that refers to the way that a city is sectioned off, or divided, based upon the properties and activities that are associated with the properties in that area. Zoning is a tool that local governments use in an attempt to create uniform neighborhoods and uniform land uses in certain areas.

This is accomplished by controlling how individuals are permitted to use their property as well as what they are permitted to build on their property. Zoning is used to categorize and separate land uses into distinct districts within a city or municipality.

In the majority of cases, a local government will provide separate districts for the following uses:

  • Residential;
  • Business; and
  • Industrial.

The two more categories that individuals are familiar with are residential zones and commercial zones. These two broad categories are associated with certain types of properties as well as the types of activities that are permitted in and around those properties. Usually, these two categories of zones do not mix.

In other words, areas are usually marked off as residential or commercial. In a residential zone, only residential properties and associated activities are permitted.

Similarly, in commercially zoned areas, only commercial buildings and commercial activities are permitted. Localities using zoning powers have been approved by the United States Supreme Court as constitutional.

Typically, land use and zoning laws are maintained by local governments as well as by municipal codes.

What are the Most Common Types of Zones?

Zoning laws typically consist of zoning ordinances which specify the regulations that are applicable to each zone. In addition, there is typically a zoning map that indicates the zone characteristics of each parcel of land within a community.

Zones may be regulated as to:

  • Use;
  • Height; and
  • Land coverage.

Within each zone, or district, the applicable restrictions should be uniform. The most common types of zones encountered in land use regulation typically include:

  • Use districts: Typical use districts include:
    • Residential zones;
    • Commercial zones;
    • Industrial zones; and
    • Agricultural zones;
      • These districts may be subdivided further by the intensity of the permitted use;
        • Residential use districts are typically divided along a continuum from the single-family residence to the high rise apartment;
        • Commercial and industrial zones are usually defined as either light or heavy;
  • Height districts: Building height regulation is one of the oldest types of land use regulation. A community may set different height limits for different parts of town;
  • Land coverage: Land coverage and bulk regulations may come in many forms. The most common coverage limitations include:
    • Minimum floor space;
    • Minimum lot size;
    • Floor-area ratio;
    • Open space; and
    • Cluster;
  • Floating zones: A zoning ordinance may permit a certain type of use but not include it within any of the districts actually shown on the zoning map. Such a use or zone floats until it is applied to a certain parcel; and
  • Holding zones: A community may not be prepared to comprehensively zone its entire area at one time. A planning board may temporarily zone a land for low intensity use in order to restrict development in the area before there has been an opportunity to zone and plan it.

What is a General Plan?

A general plan, or master plan, of a locality provides a purpose for the zoning and land use ordinances that are enacted by the locality. Generally, zoning ordinances are required to conform to the general plan in the locality.

Land use plans may be implemented which determine how land is to be used, allotted, or improved by private entities or government entities. These types of plans may be implemented to ensure that the zoning ordinances are being followed.

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

  • Farming;
  • Mining; and
  • Natural gas.

In many cases, a local government will have a land use plan in place that will aid in structuring how the city operates. For example, the city may have a goal, such as to be a green city, which means the city is environmentally conscious and practices conservation.

Land use plans outline how the city will operate to promote an environmentally friendly development. Businesses in the area are required to adhere to the principles in the land use plan.

What is Residential Zoning?

Residential zoning is land which is typically designed for:

  • Homes;
  • Apartments; and
  • Duplexes.

Only the activities that are associated with general living are permitted there. For example, individuals are permitted to sleep and reside in these areas but are, generally, not permitted to perform commercial activities in these areas, such as opening a restaurant.

The laws that govern residential property may outline regulations, including whether mobile homes are allowed to be parked on the property. Zoning laws may also limit the number of animals at residences.

Local residential zoning laws may also govern whether a homeowner is permitted to open and operate a home-based business.

What Commercial Zoning Laws Used for?

Commercially zoned areas are usually reserved for businesses, including:

  • Restaurants;
  • Hotels;
  • Offices;
  • Nightclubs; and
  • Shopping centers.

Commercial zoning laws typically allow for the operation and performances of business related activities. Examples may include selling goods or food or providing services for money, such as a dry cleaning business.

Commercial zoning laws also have their own sets of limitations. For example, the majority of business properties are not permitted to allow the business owners to live or sleep on the same premises.

Can I Open Up a Business in a Residential Area?

Whether an individual opens a business in a residential area depends on the jurisdiction. As noted above, the majority of business activities are only permitted in commercially-zoned areas.

A business, however, may be permitted to open in an area that is deemed a mixed-use zoned area. A mixed-use zoned property may be a commercial or residential area.

This type of area may allow for a hybrid property, such as one where an individual is permitted to conduct business operations from their place of residence. The best way to determine if this is permitted is to check the zoning maps of an area.

These maps can often be found at the local city hall. An individual can also consult with a local real estate attorney, as these individuals often handle these types of questions and will be able to assist an individual get started with the process.

Who Makes Zoning Decisions?

Most municipalities have a zoning or planning department that proposes zoning ordinances as well as oversees zoning and land use hearings. In some countries and localities, the board of supervisors are charged with this duty.

A planning or zoning department may also make decisions regarding variances, conditional use permits or other issues that may implicate a zoning or land use ordinance. Usually, a department will have a public hearing where the individual or group whose land is affected will be permitted to present their arguments.

This type of hearing also allows members of the public to voice their opinions on an issue. Decisions made by zoning departments are subject to review by a court.

Should I Contact an Attorney about My Zoning Questions?

If you have any issues, questions, or concerns related to a zoning issue, having the advice of an experienced real estate attorney can be very helpful. Your lawyer can assist you with determining the strength of your potential case and will be able to explain some of the complex legal ideas behind this particular area of law.

Your lawyer can assist you with determining what zone a property is located in, making requests to change the zone or obtain a variance, and represent you if legal action is required.


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