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Zoning, Planning, and Land Use Legal Issues

Zoning is a local government's attempt at creating uniform neighborhoods and land uses in certain areas, by controlling how you can use your property and what you can build on your property. The United States Supreme Court has approved the locality's use of zoning powers as constitutional. Zoning categorizes and separates differing land uses into distinct districts within a municipality. Typically, a local government will provide separate districts for residential, business and industrial uses.

What Is a General Plan

The general or master plan of a locality will provide the purpose for the zoning and land use ordinances the locality employs. Generally, a zoning ordinance must conform to the general plan of the locality

Who Makes Zoning Decisions?

Most municipalities have a specific Planning or Zoning Department that will propose zoning ordinances and oversee zoning and land use hearings. Some localities and counties charge their board of supervisors with this duty.

These departments will also make decisions regarding variances (see below), conditional use permits and other issues that may implicate a zoning or land use ordinance. Generally, the department will have a public hearing where the individual or group whose land is affected will be able to present their case. The hearing also allows for public comment on the case. The decision made by the zoning department is subject to review by a court.

What If My Land Use Does Not Comply with the Zoning Ordinance?

The general plan usually provides different possibilities for those whose land use may not comply with the zoning ordinance for their district: 

  • Variance: If your use of land or proposed building does not entirely conform to existing zoning and land use laws, you can apply for a variance. Typically, the landowner must show that she will experience a substantial financial hardship if she does not receive a variance.
  • Non-Conforming Use: Generally, new zoning laws cannot force an existing structure or use to change. Thus, a building or use that exists before a zoning ordinance is passed cannot be illegal and does not need to be changed. The zoning department considers this a non-conforming use.

Should I Consult a Real Estate Attorney?

Each locality has a different procedure regulating zoning and land use decisions. Additionally, public hearings often require a very detailed description of your problem and an argument that embraces both your unique facts and the local law. A real estate lawyer is often familiar with the procedures of the regulating body and the local law. A real estate attorney can also inform you as to the land use and zoning options for your business or residence.

Vea esta página en español: Planificación de Zonas de Uso de Terreno Urbano y Rural o visita Abogados-Leyes.com para más información legal.

Photo of page author Kristen Johnson

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 11-09-2017 12:44 AM PST

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