Municipal authorities are tasked with deciding how their cities should be divided among commercial and private landowners. These divisions, created through a set of ordinances called zoning laws, enhance the function and appearance of a city. They also safeguard historic districts that otherwise could be compromised because of private or commercial development. Before you buy a house, start a business, or invest in real estate, learn more about these municipal ordinances and how they can impact your role as a property owner.
An Overview of Zoning Laws
As noted, cities use these laws to determine for what purpose property within a neighborhood or district can be utilized. They exist primarily to make a city a more pleasant and practical place to live. However, they also are increasingly being used to encourage greater urban density in some locations.
These ordinances are typically subject to variances depending on city leadership. Zoning practices also depend significantly on population increase or decline within a city’s boundaries.
Common Zone Categories
A property’s classification can fall into one of several different zoning categories typically utilized by cities in the U.S. The most common seven categories include:
1. Residential: Property zoned for residential purpose can be used for the construction and maintenance of structures like:
- Single-family houses
- Mobile homes
The zoning practices for residential districts also will stipulate what kinds of animals can be raised on the property and whether or not homeowners can run a business from their residences.
2. Commercial: Commercial property is used for the construction and function of offices, restaurants, shopping centers, and other types of businesses. Depending on the variances for commercial zones, it also may allow for some types of apartments.
3. Industrial: Industrial zones are set aside for factories, warehouses, and other types of businesses.
4. Agricultural: Agricultural zones are used for the setup and function of farms, ranches, and other endeavors related to raising crops and animals for food or consumer goods.
5. Historic: City leaders can establish historic zones to protect historic buildings from demolition or damages. Historic zones also can give tax incentives to people who own property within the zone’s boundaries.
6. Aesthetic: Aesthetic zones are most often found in upscale neighborhoods. The zone allows entities like homeowners’ associations to establish rules for aesthetics like:
- allowable home colors or color schemes
- building materials
- types of pets or animals allowed to be raised in the zone
7. Mixed: Property within a mixed zone may be allowed to be used for a variety of residential, commercial, or other uses.
Property Owner Rights and Responsibilities
Why should you pay attention to and abide by the zone ordinances in which you live or do business? The foremost reason involves avoiding fines and penalties for violating the purpose for which your property has been categorized.
For instance, if your house is located within a residential zone, it may be illegal for you to run a home-based business. You could risk being fined by the city if you conduct business that goes beyond holding a seasonal garage sale or sidewalk lemonade stand.
Second, these ordinances make it possible for homeowners and people who lease their residences to live away from areas that could compromise their quality of life. Most people, for example, do not want to live next to a busy shopping center or down the street from a loud and smelly factory. By abiding by the zones for which your property is categorized, you do your part to make your city a more practical and pleasant place to live.
Zoning Relief Options
But what happens when the property that you own is placed in a different zone category by the city? Do you have to shut down or relocate your business or sell your home? Fortunately, you may be able to seek zoning relief from the city so that you can continue to live or do business without interruption.
You can pursue this relief in three separate but effective ways. The first method involves asking the city for an exemption from the law. You may be exempt from the ordinance if you have invested a lot of money into the property or have owned the property for a significant length of time, particularly if that time precedes the current zone classification. The city may grant you continued existing use or lawful nonconforming use exemption.
You can also ask the city for a variance for your property. This exception would allow you to incorporate the manner in which you utilize your property into the zone classification and also allow you to avoid being fined or penalized by the city.
Finally, you can challenge the classification and present an argument for why the property should revert back to its former zone category. It is imperative that you build a solid case for your challenge if you want to avoid having your case denied by the city. You may present the best argument by retaining an attorney who practices in real estate law to assist you with your case.
Cities create districts and neighborhoods to determine how property should best be utilized. These zones lay out the terms for whether or not a plot of land can be used for commercial or residential purposes or even set aside for farming or industrial use. Property owners may be able to challenge or gain an exemption from zone ordinances by petitioning the city.
Zoning laws are designed to make a city or municipality a safer, effective, and more pleasant place to live and in which to do business. However, when these ordinances run afoul of a property owner’s intended use for a home, business, or other asset, this person may be forced to alter or abandon the property to avoid civil fines and penalties. When you want to retain ownership of your property without the fear of civil or even criminal consequences, you can petition the governing body in your area for zoning changes variances and more relief options that are available to you today.
One of the most common types of zoning relief available to you is a variance. A variance asks the government to allow your property to be used in a way that deviates from current zoning laws. It also gives you a waiver exempting your property from zoning ordinance requirements.
Variances are typically given to owners who would have difficulty utilizing the property for the stipulated zoning purposes. To apply for a variance yourself, you must pay the required filing fee and submit an application or petition to the government in writing.
Your application or petition will then go before the zoning board, which in turn may notify property owners close or adjacent to your property. You also may be required to appear at a public hearing to explain why you are requesting the variance. The governing body will then render a decision to approve or deny your petition.
Non-Conforming Use Exemption
Another option you have available to you involves seeking a non-conforming use exemption for your property. A non-conforming use exemption would allow your property to be used in a way that would otherwise run afoul of the current zoning ordinance.
Non-conforming use exemptions are typically granted to people who owned the property before the zoning ordinances were changed or implemented. The use of the property also must have been ongoing prior to the zoning laws enactment.
People who are given non-conforming use exemptions are typically said to have been grandfathered into the current zoning codes. Once you sell your property or stop using it for the purpose outlined in the non-conforming use exemption, this zoning relief will expire.
Conditional Use Permit
A conditional use permit is similar to a variance in that it allows your property to be used in a way that is not permitted by the current zoning laws. Like a variance, you must file the appropriate paperwork and pay the prescribed fee. You also may be required to appear before the governing board to explain your need for this type of zoning relief.
Conditional use permits are typically requested before a political body such as the city council or county board. They most often are given if the conditional use of the property would be in the best interest of the public.
Finally, your property may be subject to eminent domain and acquisition by the government. The city, county, state, or federal government can use eminent domain to acquire your property if it is needed to create:
- public roads
- government or public facilities
- government buildings
- public parks
It can also use eminent domain if your property is needed for the protection of:
- scenic areas
- historic landmarks
- wildlife or endangered species
The government can likewise use eminent domain to lay claim to your property if current zoning laws make it impossible for you to continue the intended use of it. Before it can use eminent domain to acquire your property, the government must compensate you fairly for it.
If it fails to render fair compensation or if it prohibits you from using your property for reasonable economic use, you could challenge the zoning law. The law demands that you retain fair access to your property unless the government renders payment for eminent domain of it.
You likewise must be given your 14th amendment Constitutional rights when challenging zoning ordinances that impact your property. The government must give you the opportunity to be heard in a meaningful way and at a meaningful time. You are entitled to due process under the law before the use or access to your property can be changed by zoning laws.
If you want to petition or challenge the zoning laws for your property, it is important that you understand the process. Depending on your particular situation, you may benefit from the advice and guidance of an attorney who specializes in property or land use law. Your lawyer can explain more about zoning changes variances and more options for relief that could help you retain full ownership and use of your property.
Zoning laws are designed to enhance and facilitate the best use of property within a city or governed area. When the laws run contrary to how you intend or have always used your own property, you have several options for obtaining zoning relief. To petition the government for any type of relief, however, you must know the proper procedure and timeline. You may achieve the most successful results by consulting with a lawyer who practices land use and property law.
Urban planners use zoning codes to outline for what purpose lots of land and property can be used throughout a city or county. When determining the zoning laws for an area, they often use abbreviations that refer to the purpose for which the buildings, homes, and other fixtures can be utilized by owners. You can discover how the property you want to invest in or buy is zoned by learning more about the different types of zoning codes.
Residential zoning laws are applied to areas designated for the construction and use of residential homes. These structures can include:
- Single-family homes, or SFH
- Suburban homesteads, or SH
- Trailer parks
Residential zoning codes also cover specifics pertaining to homes, such as whether or not a mobile home must be tied down or placed on a foundation or what kinds of and how many animals can be raised on a residential lot.
The codes also clarify if homeowners can operate businesses out of their residences. Zoning laws may restrict people from running home-based companies based on the type or nature of the business, hours of operation, parking, entrance facilities, noise, and other factors. In general, rules for home-based businesses tend to be more stringent for people living in apartments, condos, and duplexes than people living in private freestanding homes.
Commercial zoning codes apply to areas in a city that are set aside for business or corporate use. The types of zoning permitted for these districts include the building and operation of:
- Shopping centers
- Some types of warehouses and apartments
The zoning codes for commercial districts stipulate how close some types of businesses can exist to residential areas or structures like churches and schools. For example, an adult entertainment business may not be allowed to be built within a certain distance from an elementary school or place of worship.
The codes also depend on factors like noise, pollution, traffic, and other facets involved in running a business. Special codes are created and implemented for businesses like warehouses and factories. Commercial developments like airports may also require their own unique designation.
Industrial zoning codes are reserved for areas in a city set aside for factories, manufacturing plants, and many types of warehouses. The codes take into consideration factors like noise, pollution, traffic, and other facets involved in running a business. Commercial developments like airports may require their own unique designation.
Industrial zoning also depends on factors like lot coverage and the height of the buildings within the designated area. Set-back requirements are typically higher for properties zoned for industrial use.
Agricultural zones are found in areas and communities that rely significantly on agricultural production for their economic livelihood. The zoning codes for these districts restrict the types of commercial and residential development that is permitted by law. They also are designed to protect farms and agricultural developments from urban crawl.
The codes for agricultural typically allow a minimal amount of land for a residential structure. They also determine the size and density of agricultural production on each plot of land. Property owners must have their land zoned for agricultural use if they want to qualify for federal voluntary incentive, subsidy, and tax abatement programs.
Agricultural zoning is not the same as rural zoning codes. Rural zoning allows properties to be used for ranches and for the raising of cattle, horses, and other types of livestock.
Aesthetic zoning codes typically apply to upscale neighborhoods and gated communities, particularly those that are governed by homeowners’ associations or architectural committees. The laws for these unique neighborhoods allow the governing entities to oversee facets of property ownership like:
- Home colors or color schemes
- Mailbox styles and heights
- Solar panels
- Satellite dishes
- Building materials
Any plans for developing or altering your home may need to be submitted to the HOA or architectural board.
Historic zoning codes protect buildings and homes that are over 50 years in age. They prevent the alteration to the original structures with the exception of repair, maintenance, and restoration as part of the historic plans for the buildings.
People who own historic buildings may qualify for tax incentives like a 20 percent tax credit for the rehabilitation of income-producing certified structures like commercial, industrial, and rental residential buildings. Historic zones can be governed in part by the National Register of Historic Places and the National Park Service.
Other Zoning Codes
For parts of the city that do not fall under the primary zoning codes, urban planners may use other categorizations that stipulate the use of the property. For example, combination zoning laws permit the unique makeup and function of the community.
Likewise, the permitted or accessory use zoning codes are used for built-in exceptions for structures that otherwise would be restricted in how they could function or serve the public. For instance, they allow a hotel to have nightclub or bar even though it operates in a district designated for other types of commercial use.
Government and urban planners use a variety of zoning categories for property throughout their city. You can learn about your property’s designated use by discovering the common types of zoning categories.