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Zoning Laws: A Practical Guide To Understanding What You Can And Can’t Do

Zoning laws have a direct effect on the value of real estate. They govern what can be built on a specific property, whether or not an existing structure can be replaced with something new or different, and even if a building can be replaced at all.

Here’s a practical guide to understanding zoning, knowing what you can and can’t do, and how to try and change the existing zoning of a property.

What Is The Purpose Of Zoning?

Zoning determines how land is used and what can be built on it. By regulating land use, zoning laws are developed to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the people in a municipality.

Local governments use a legislative process to divide land into different zones of use. When creating zoning laws, governments include four things:

  1. Separate land uses that are not compatible with each other.
  2. Allowing that property to be used for its highest and best use by considering the location of the property and existing uses of land that surround the property.
  3. Guide orderly development that is in the best interests of the people.
  4. Allow for needed public infrastructure such as utilities and highways.

Compatible Use Is a Key Factor in Zoning

Municipalities have two types of customers: residents and business. Residents need a place to live, and businesses create important economic growth.

To avoid conflict between these two groups, cities develop a master zoning plan that focuses on the compatibility of different uses. Zoning laws regulate compatible use by:

  • Dividing zones into different uses such as industrial, commercial, and residential districts,
  • Regulating the size and types of buildings that can be constructed in each zone,
  • Creating rules for setbacks, lot size, and green space for each building on each parcel within a zone,
  • Requiring developers to erect sound or sight control barriers, or install flood control systems, to minimize the development impact on neighboring properties.

How Zoning Laws and Master Plans Are Created

Cities create a master development plan, or a comprehensive land use plan, to guide the development of a municipality. Using the master plan as a road map, zoning laws are used to reach the intended physical, economic, and social development.

There are four general steps used to create a master development plan:


Community input and city council approval – the residential and business communities, planning professionals, and city staff and planning commission collaborate to create a master plan. The master development plan is then sent to the city council for approval.


Master development plans identify where infrastructure such as streets and utilities should go, both now and in the future to allow for growth. Compatible land uses, and the types and size of allowable structures are also contained in the plan.

Zoning Ordinance

With a master development plan in place, specific zoning laws are then created to enforce the master plan. The creation of zoning laws, or ordinances, is similar to the way the master plan is created. Community collaboration and input gathered, laws are drafted and – usually after extensive debate – approved and passed into law.

A zoning ordinance normally contains three sections:

  1. The type and use of the district – industrial, commercial, residential, historic, mixed-use, planned use districts;
  2. Uniform standards for the districts – such as the amount of parking, noise control, and signage restrictions;
  3. Administrative section – how actions are reviewed, approved, denied, and appealed.

Future Actions

Master development plans can and do change. Because the future is impossible to predict, changes to zoning ordinances can be made in three ways:

  • Rezoning – a change in the property’s zoning district, for example from industrial to commercial;
  • Conditional use – allows a property to be used in a way not intended by the district, for example, a day-care center within a residentially zoned district;
  • Variance – is used to remove an unnecessary hardship for a property owner, for example making an exception to a physical regulation such as a setback or the height of a fence.

How Zoning Decisions Are Made

There are four parties that can make – or break – a real estate development project by agreeing to or rejecting a change in zoning laws:

  1. City zoning staff – the first step in applying for a zoning change. They don’t approve or deny an application. Instead, they ensure that the application complies with the existing zoning ordinance and make recommendations to the other parties in the zoning decision
  2. Planning commission – acts as an advisory group to the city council. They consider the application and will recommend that the council approve the application, request modifications, or deny the application.
  3. City council, or in some areas the planning commission – makes the final decision on a zoning change application.
  4. Board of appeals, or a board of zoning adjustment – hears appeals by applicants whose zoning application has been denied by the city council. Depending on the municipality, the board may either overturn a decision or make recommendations to the city council for review.

Examples of Zoning Laws

Examples of zoning laws in residential districts include requiring sidewalks and crosswalks, the ratio of park space or green belts within a residential development, and the exterior appearance or elevation of houses within the project.

Some examples of zoning laws in commercial districts include required parking to rentable square footage ratios, types of property use that is adjacent to a residential district, and the location of religious or educational facilities.

How to Check Zoning Laws

It’s most effective, and less expensive, to start small and work your way up. For example, people who are thinking about running a business out of their home could check with their homeowner association or property manager.

There are five main ways to check on zoning laws:

  • Determine which zoning laws apply to a property, based on where it is located and what the intended use will be;
  • Search online for city or county zoning ordinances to determine allowed property use;
  • Call or make an in-person visit to the city planning and zoning department;
  • Research how the property was previously used and if any variances to the zoning law were made;
  • Hire an attorney who specializes in zoning law or land use to assist with the research, application, and possible appeals process.

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