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The Basics of Zoning Laws and Ordinances

“Zoning” is a system of laws and ordinances by which the use and development of land is regulated. The concept of planning for the development of a city or town is well established. The concept of zoning, however, is more recent, even though the two are interconnected; zoning is often used to effectuate and enforce a plan. It has been said that zoning is now the basic means of land use control by local government.

History of Zoning

New York City is credited with the first comprehensive U.S. zoning regulations in 1916. The law was prompted by construction of the 42-story Equitable Building in Manhattan. The resulting shadow permanently placed neighboring buildings in the shade and drew much criticism. The resulting zoning laws were aimed at avoiding “functionally incompatible uses,” e.g., placing warehouses and factories next to homes.

In the 1920’s a federal Division of Housing and Standards was formed. It produced a “Standard Zoning Enabling Act Under Which Municipalities Can Adopt Zoning Regulations.” Some states had already passed such enabling legislation and some municipalities had already adopted zoning codes, but the Act was soon adopted by a majority of states, formally giving cities and towns the authority to pass zoning laws. In a landmark case in 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of zoning laws.

Zoning Classification of Property

Zoning is largely a matter of local law and regulation. Consequently, zoning laws can vary widely among localities. However, zoning laws generally classify sections of land within the community based on intended use. A letter designation is often assigned to the area, such as “R” for residential (there are also frequently subsets based on further differentiation of usage, i.e., R-1, R-2, etc.). Common classifications include:

  • Commercial – often subdivided into zones for small shops, large malls, etc.
  • Industrial – frequently subdivided based on the type of activity, i.e., light v. heavy industry, etc.
  • Residential – may be divided into single-family dwellings, multifamily dwellings, small and large apartment complexes, etc.
  • Agricultural.

Types of Restrictions on Use and Development

Based on the classification, zoning laws regulate the use of property and the type of structures which may be built upon it. While zoning laws vary depending on the locale, common provisions may include:

  • “Setback” regulations – the distance required between a building and the sides of the lot, to ensure front and back yards in residential areas, space between buildings, etc.
  • Signage – regulating the size and placement of signs (billboards, etc.) in an area.
  • Permitted use – e.g., it may be against the zoning laws to run a business in a residential neighborhood, although certain “home occupations” that are incidental or secondary uses of the residence may be allowed.
  • Parking – the inclusion of a minimum number of parking spaces may be required in commercial and industrial zones and parking. The size and placement of driveways and garages may be regulated in residential areas.
  • Animals – keeping certain types of animals or more than a specified number of animals may be prohibited in certain areas; most commonly, farm animals may not be kept in residential areas.
  • Size of any building – commonly there is a maximum allowable height and/or square footage.
  • Size of the lot – often there is a minimum square footage required for a lot, regulating the ability to subdivide a parcel of land.

Some zoning laws and ordinances have been in existence for many years and reflect a different time and culture. For example, some zoning laws state that the occupants of a single family home must all be blood relatives. Zoning laws, however, may not have a discriminatory purpose or be designed to segregate individuals by race, class, or economic status. It is considered prudent to check the local zoning laws before buying, remodeling or developing property.

Variances and Rezoning

Most municipalities and zoning laws allow for rezoning or obtaining a “variance,” i.e., permission to make changes that would otherwise violate zoning laws. Procedures for obtaining a variance differ depending on the locale. Commonly it involves applying to the local authority regulating land use and development, such as a planning commission. Neighboring property owners and others who may be affected by the variance are usually given time to object. Factors such as changed circumstances in the area, whether the proposed use is consistent with the neighborhood, and whether the need for the variance is necessitated actions of by the property owner may be considered.

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