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Zoning: What It Is And How To Understand Zoning Codes

7-Minute Read
Published on January 22, 2020

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 multifamily 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 setback from the road.

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.

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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 includes 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 will depend 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 protects 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 uses 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 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.

For each zoning classification, a city will likely have multiple subcategories to further identify what types of things 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.

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.

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 you’ll need 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 fulfil 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: A type of 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): Tells us 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: An exception granted by your local government to a zone’s use or building restrictions.

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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.