Zoning ordinances are rules that regulate how property in a particular location can be used. Locations are defined by geographic location or specific coordinates on a map. Usually, these locations are limited to areas within cities and counties. That is, the local government can limit and regulate what activities are performed within its jurisdiction. Typically, State and Federal governments do not engage in land regulations.

While zoning ordinances are popular in commercial use or businesses, it is not uncommon to see in residential neighborhoods. You have probably seen the effects of a zoning code without even realizing it.

For example, housing communities that have a similar aesthetic or price range. In these communities, neighboring homes will have a similar floor layout, i.e., two bedrooms, one bath. But, the house may be painted with different colors. Usually, homeowners will be able to choose from already approved color choices.

How Does Zoning Work?

Zoning can occur before building, or before land use, but also when areas are already established. Here, the city or the county will divide a particular area of land into zones or districts. They can then decide what that land, and structures located on it, can be used.

More often, the local government is governing what the property cannot be used. Local governments are using these ordinances to structure the way cities operate, and they can be very different depending on where you are located. For example, zoning laws in New York City are going to be different than in Los Angeles. Similarly, zoning laws in Los Angeles will vary from the laws in San Francisco. More often than zoning ordinances are used to separate commercial use from residential use.

What Are Commercial Zoning Ordinances?

Commercial zoning ordinances can determine:

  • Type of businesses allowed;
  • Activities the business is allowed to engage in; and
  • Activities the business cannot take part in.

These laws can regulate anything that contributes to the aesthetic of the zoned area like:

  • Architecture style;
  • Landscaping; and
  • Building decoration, like paint color.

What if Zoning Changes in My Location?

Unfortunately, rezoning can have some adverse effects on families and businesses. As a result of new ordinances, residential properties might be forced to become commercial properties, and commercial businesses may have to switch to residential use only. There are exceptions allowing properties that do not meet the requirements of the ordinance to remain in the area after the ordinances are established.

Grandfather clauses are often built into new zooming ordinances. Generally, a grandfather clause exempts a person or entity from the enforcement of new laws, rules, and regulations. In zoning, this means the grandfather clause may protect a resident or commercial business. This is typical of changes in zoning laws that have a negative impact on businesses.

Can Zoning Ordinances Be Avoided?

The way to avoid zoning ordinances is to adequately research the laws and regulations in the jurisdiction you wish to live or do business. By looking into the zoning laws of cities and surrounding areas, you can find out if there are existing laws that will regulate your business. You might even find that zoning laws would benefit your property.

For example, newly developed cities apply a non-compete zoning ordinance to benefit and diversify the zoned area. In these cities, there might be two sports bars located on the same street. One bar specializes in craft beer while the other is known for the viewing options, such as having more TVs and the ability to watch more games. Non-compete zoning laws join in traditional regulations, such as all buildings must be brick and have specific signage. These ordinances are meant to benefit not only the city but the property owner and the community.

Additionally, new businesses may have the option of applying for a variance. It is up to the board of adjustments to grant a variation, and can only happen if the zoning ordinance allows for it. Variance is allowed when the zoning ordinance is so strict, and they create an unjust hardship on property owners. To prove hardship, the property owner must show the property has such unique features that the value would suffer otherwise.

What Happens If I Violate a Zoning Ordinance?

If a zoning ordinance is violated, the offender may be subject to:

  • Serious financial damages;
  • Suffer civil penalties;
  • Make costly updates;
  • Sell the property early; or
  • Have to remove a building physically.

Additionally, the zoning boards may deny future permits; this means the violation can affect a person or business long term.

Should I Contact a property Attorney About My Zoning Problems?

If you are concerned with zoning codes in your area, you may want to seek a local property lawyer’s advice. An experienced real estate lawyer can explain complex legal concepts and better direct you and with your particular case.