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Zoning: What It Is And How It Affects Your Property Rights

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Published on January 22, 2020
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Like many municipal regulations, zoning is a somewhat confusing and generally pretty boring set of codes that, unbeknownst to most residents, directly impacts the very structures of our lives.

Yeah, zoning is that important. It’s why you don’t have a fast food restaurant for a next door neighbor, why you can’t open a small petting zoo in your backyard, and it may even be partially responsible for why housing is so unaffordable and inaccessible in many parts of the country (such as San Francisco, where zoning laws have often prevented more affordable, multifamily housing from being established).

What Is Zoning?

Zoning laws regulate the use of land within a municipality. It controls the ways in which the land can be developed and what purposes the zoned land can serve.

Zoning is what keeps a residential district residential, a commercial district commercial, an industrial district industrial and so on. Zoning dictates what types of properties can co-exist in a particular area within a municipality. For example, some areas are zoned strictly for single-family homes (possibly with exceptions for things like religious buildings or community centers), while certain mixed-used or transitional zoning districts may allow for select businesses and some single and multiunit homes to exist in the same area. On the other end of the spectrum, structures used for heavy industry will be consigned to specifically zoned areas that are purposely kept far away from residential districts.

Historically, zoning has been viewed as a means to preserve the safety and health of a community. It’s intended to ensure, for example, that residents don’t have to live next door to a loud, polluting factory that could potentially harm their health and lower their property values. In the wrong hands, though, zoning has been linked to discrimination, with critics arguing that it has contributed to racial and economic segregation in many areas.

Zoning laws can also regulate more specific details of construction, such as maximum building height, minimum lot size or how far a house needs to be set back from the road.

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Local Zoning Laws

Zoning laws vary from city to city, so if you want to know how zoning affects you, you’ll want to check in with your local government.

Why is it important for homeowners to know their local zoning laws? Zoning laws can affect what you’re allowed to do with your property. While they typically aren’t very restrictive, if you want to do something a little out of the ordinary, like own a flock of chickens or run a business out of your garage, you should check with your local government first to make sure you’re allowed to do so.

Plus, if you want to make any additions to your property, your local zoning ordinance can tell you what you are and aren’t allowed to do. For example, if you want to install a fence, your zoning ordinance may specify the maximum height your fence is allowed to be, or if you’ll need any permits or inspections to be able to lawfully complete the project.

Where can you find information regarding your local zoning laws? It can vary depending on your locality, but you can start by reaching out to your local government office. Your city may also make this information available online, so you can easily and quickly access things like zoning maps and your city’s zoning ordinance right on the municipality’s official website

Know Before You Buy

It’s imperative that you understand what you can and can’t do with property before you buy a house. In addition to zoning laws, you might also be joining a homeowners association (HOA), with its own set of rules about what you can and can’t do in your home.

For example, let’s say you want to continue your side hustle of giving a small number of students piano lessons on the weekend when you move into your new home. It won’t take long for zoning enforcement officers or your HOA to get wind of the uptick in traffic at your home and realize you’re running a business out of your home. That might be prohibited outright, depending on how your area is zoned or by HOA bylaws. Or you might have to comply with zoning regulations on matters like parking or compliance with accessibility regulations.

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How Does Zoning Work?

The planners who help create and mold the structures of our cities and towns want – for the most part – to create layouts that make the most sense for the people living there in terms of how they live and move within the area.

When making decisions about a city’s zoning, planners will often consult the city’s “master plan,” which is a comprehensive document that lays out what a particular municipality’s current and future needs and goals are.

A master plan takes into account a community’s transportation needs, its economy, its obstacles and challenges, and the people, homes, parks and businesses that make up that community.

Once a master plan is in place, a zoning ordinance can be created, drawing on the goals and needs outlined in the master plan. The zoning ordinance is what helps put a city’s plans into action; it’s a document that lists all the regulations and laws that govern how land can be used and maps out exactly what the boundaries of the area’s different zones are.

Types Of Zoning: Understanding Zoning Codes

Zoning classifications tell us what a particular tract of land can be used for. Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly used classifications:

Residential

Since there are so many different types of dwellings that people call home, a municipality will typically have multiple residential districts that can vary quite a bit depending on the types of residences within them. The main differences often deal with whether the districts are made up of single-family or multifamily homes. Single-family homes are likely what you picture when you think of a house: a detached structure that is home to only one household. Multifamily homes are dwellings that house more than one family or household (think duplexes, townhomes or apartments). The rules that govern these properties will differ depending on the specific type of residential district you’re in. For example, a single-family home in a more secluded subdivision will have different zoning requirements than an apartment building in the heart of a busy city.

Business

Also referred to as commercial zoning, a city’s business districts are where you can find shopping centers, restaurants, office space and other places where people go to earn and spend their money. How close a business zone can be to other zones depends on the types of businesses in the zone and how much vehicle traffic those businesses typically draw. Business district buildings may have restrictions such as maximum building height, a setback minimum or a requirement to provide parking.

Industrial

Spaces zoned for industrial uses include businesses that deal in light, medium-scale and heavy industry. This can range from smaller wholesale real estate properties and warehouses to large, heavy-duty manufacturing facilities. Typically, heavy industry will be kept far away from residential spaces.

Agricultural

Whether a municipality will have an agricultural district depends on if the area has a farming industry. Agricultural zoning is meant to protect farmlands from conflicting land uses that could potentially harm the farmland, and to allow farms the space they need to run efficiently and effectively.

Institutional

Institutionally zoned areas typically include things like museums, libraries, schools, publicly owned recreational facilities (such as a city pool) or places of worship. What constitutes an institutional structure can vary depending on your locality.

Open Space

Sometimes, a community’s zoning ordinance will include open space zoning to protect its undeveloped land. This can include things like parks, playgrounds and vacant lots.

Mixed-Use

Mixed-use zoning allows for multiple uses in a single district that have been deemed compatible with each other. The types of land use that are considered compatible will depend on what a municipality has decided is acceptable. You’ll see examples of mixed-use zoning in downtown areas where buildings will have residential units in the upper stories and retail on the ground floor.

Planned Unit Development

This type of zoning designation allows for flexibility in a way that a municipality’s zoning ordinance didn’t plan for but benefits the community as a whole. This type of zoning allows a single development to utilize multiple types of land uses. A good example of a planned unit development (PUD) this would be a ski resort, where you’ll find outdoor open spaces, hotels or short-term rental properties, restaurants, stores and other types of land uses all within a single development.

Historic

In areas where there are lots of historic buildings or structures, a municipality’s zoning ordinance may take these neighborhoods into account and provide certain protections for those structures. Buying a historic home may seem like a dream come true, but living in a designated historic district means you’ll have to comply with yet another layer of oversight and regulation if you want to renovate your home.

Subcategories

For each zoning classification, a city will likely have multiple subcategories to further identify what types of activities a particular zone can be used for. For example, while some business zones may be able to exist adjacent to residential zones (depending on the type of businesses within the zones), others will have to be built farther away. Some residential subcategories may also provide more flexibility for the types of non-residential structures that can be constructed within or adjacent to those areas.

Exemptions

In addition to a zone’s primary, permitted uses, the zoning ordinance may also include the ability to apply for a special use or conditional use permit that allows a property to be used in a way that it wasn’t originally zoned for but that is compatible with the current zone.

Since zoning laws can change over time, it’s also possible that a property that used to be in line with zoning regulations no longer meets current zoning standards but is allowed to remain as-is and is considered legally compliant. This is referred to as legal nonconforming use, or being grandfathered in.

Know Before You Start Renovations

You might be buying a fixer-upper home for its possibilities and plan to renovate immediately, or you might be renovating after building up enough home equity to do a cash out refinance.

Be sure to review your locality’s relevant zoning regulations before you do. It’s essential when working on a home project, especially landscaping or building an addition, because the laws may have become much stricter since the last time you looked at them. Don’t forget to factor in the costs of getting relevant permits in your budgeting for the project.

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Rezoning A Parcel

Over time, a community’s needs and direction will shift. This means that occasionally, a municipality will have to amend its zoning ordinance or rezone certain areas.

How amendments or rezoning is handled will depend on the locality, but typically a planning commission will consider the proposed changes and try to determine whether they’re in the best interest of the community. They’ll gather pertinent data and hold public hearings to allow those affected by the proposed changes to explain why they approve or disapprove. Then the city council or other governing body will review all the available information and testimonies and decide whether to approve or reject the change.

If you own a property that you want to rezone for a different use than what is currently allowed, you’ll need to reach out to your local government to find out what steps to take, as the process varies from city to city.

Common Zoning Terms

Zoning law can be kind of a confusing topic with lots of unfamiliar words, so let’s go over some of the more common terms you’ll come across when looking at your city’s zoning ordinance:

  • Accessory Dwelling Unit: A residential dwelling that exists on the same lot as a single-family home but is an independent residence. This may be a detached structure, an attached addition to the home or a unit built into the home’s basement or attic. Common examples include an “in-law suite” or a guest house.
  • Accessory Uses: Structures that don’t fulfill the primary purpose of the land but are incidental to the primary purpose. A classic example of this is a detached garage on a residential lot.
  • Easements: An easement is a land-use restriction that gives an entity the right to use land owned by someone else for a specific purpose. Easements may restrict the way you can use or build on your land. An example would be a utility company running utility lines through your property.
  • Floor Area Ratio (FAR): This notes how much floor space a building has relative to its total lot size. Zoning ordinances may have restrictions on what an acceptable FAR can be.
  • Lot Coverage: The amount of a lot that is occupied by buildings and other structures. Zoning ordinances may specify a maximum percentage of lot coverage allowed.
  • Parking Minimum: Stipulates the minimum amount of off-street parking a development must have.
  • Setback: Stipulates the distance a structure has to be from a lot’s boundaries. For example, in residential neighborhoods, houses may have to be setback a specified number of yards from the street.
  • Upzoning: A change in zoning laws that allows for more dense use of an area. An example of this is a city changing a residential district’s zoning from only allowing single-family homes to allowing for multifamily housing as well.
  • Variance: A variance is an exception to zoning rules granted by your local government to a zone’s use or building restrictions.

The Bottom Line: Understand How Zoning Laws Affect Your Property Rights

If you’re just beginning to figure out where you want to live, it’s a good idea to understand local zoning laws. If you currently start your day by taking your dog for a walk and buying a cup of coffee along your route, you may not want to be in a subdivision that requires you to drive to a retail store.

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Andrew Dehan

Andrew Dehan is a professional writer who writes about real estate and homeownership. He is also a published poet, musician and nature-lover. He lives in metro Detroit with his wife, daughter and dogs.