Zoning, Planning and Land Use

Licenses and Permits: Zoning

You will want to do a thorough investigation of the zoning laws in your community before you start or buy a small business. Zoning ordinances and regulations are laws that define and restrict how you can use your property. Typically, zoning restricts land use by type of use, height of the structures on the property and position of the structures on the property.

Most often, zoning is carried out by an ordinance that is adopted by a city or county under the authority of a state enabling act. The governing body, with the advice of a planning commission, divides the community into districts, or zones, and adopts land use regulations that vary by district, but that are uniform within each district. Typical districting schemes divide the community by basic use types (agricultural, residential, commercial and industrial). Within those use types, district regulations establish varying intensities or densities.

Check Zoning Before You Open for Business

A property owner can check a map to identify the district within which the property is located and then refer to the zoning ordinance to determine what regulations apply within that district. Call your town hall, zoning office or local library to get a copy of the zoning laws. Also, many communities make their codes available on their Web sites.

Common Zoning Categories

The categories used to describe zoning are not uniform from place to place. For instance, it is not uncommon to find that zoning rules that apply to one part of the community are different in another part of the town, or that one town does a mix of residential uses with some commercial uses but a neighboring community might outlaw such a mix.

The most frequently-used groups are:

  • Agricultural
  • Residential
  • Commercial (also called "business")
  • Industrial (also called ''manufacturing'')

Divisions within Categories

Within each of the general categories are more narrowly defined divisions. For example, a residential zone might be segregated into separate zones for single-family homes on one acre, single family homes on a half acre, hotels, boardinghouses, mobile homes, low-rise apartment complexes, high-rise apartment complexes or institutional housing. An industrial zone may be zoned "heavy," "light" or "research." A commercial zone can be divided into small stores, shopping centers, gas stations, restaurants, drive-in facilities, adult-entertainment districts and warehouses.

Zoning Symbols

Zoning symbols vary among communities. An R2 zone in one community is not necessarily the same as an R2 in another community. Frequently, communities use letters of the alphabet as code abbreviations to identify the use allowed in a physical geographic area, such as A for agricultural (or airport or apartments), R for residential, C for commercial, I or M for industrial or manufacturing, and P for park or parking lots. These symbols are usually followed by a number to specify the level of use; for example, the common generalizations are R1 for a single-family home, R2 for two-dwelling units, R3 for apartment complexes and so forth.

Use Restrictions

Zoning laws set forth a variety of use restrictions, such as:

  • The height and overall size of buildings
  • Their proximity to one another
  • What percentage of the area of a building lot may contain structures
  • What particular kinds of facilities must be included with certain kinds of uses

Non-Conforming Use

Existing properties are often used in a manner that's inconsistent with a new zoning ordinance. Such uses are referred to as non-conforming uses because they don't conform to the requirements of the zoning ordinance.

Conditional Use

Conditional use is a use which is permitted under a zoning ordinance, but which must meet certain conditions. For example, a zoning ordinance may permit professional offices in a residential zone, if at least four off-street parking places are provided.

When a use is conditional, the zoning ordinance often will require the property owner to file an application with local officials so that they may determine whether the conditions have been met.


A variance or special use permit is an exception to the requirements of a zoning ordinance. Most laws concerning zoning ordinances also detail the circumstances under which variances may be granted. It requires giving public notice and then having a variance approved by government agencies that oversee enforcement of the zoning plan. Neighbors or other interested parties may oppose any zoning changes. Usually, you must show some kind of hardship to justify getting a variance.

Zoning Laws and Home Offices

If you are planning on starting your small business from your home, investigate local zoning ordinances covering home-based businesses. Some residential neighborhoods have strict zoning restrictions that may prevent you from doing business out of your home. Yet, it may be possible to get a variance or conditional-use permit. Condominiums and planned communities may have bylaws that could affect your ability to do business out of your home.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How do I check the zoning for the property where I plan to locate my business?
  • How difficult is it in my community to obtain a zoning variance, and how long does the process take?
  • The neighborhood where I plan to locate my business is changing. How do those changes factor into the plans for my business right now?
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