Zoning, Planning and Land Use

Zoning Ordinances and Regulations

By Will Van Vactor, J.D.
Understanding how cities, counties, townships, and even state governments use zoning laws to guide development and shape the community--and how you can make changes.

Zoning ordinances and regulations control how you can use your property. Cities, counties, townships, and even state governments use zoning laws to guide development and shape the community. These laws directly impact most property owners. Before you buy or develop real property, you need to be familiar the zoning regulations that apply.

Why Zoning Is a Big Issue

Zoning comes into play on every single real estate development, big or small. So if you are thinking about buying property or making improvements to property that you own, you'll need and want to know how zoning laws fit into your plan. If you fail to find out what uses are allowed as a first step, it can be an expensive mistake if it turns out zoning prohibits your development. Not only can you be forced to remove any improvements made to the property that violate the zoning regulations, you can also be fined and face a code enforcement action.

Zoning also impacts the value of a given piece elooking to build a subdivision. And depending on how productive the land is for agriculture, it may have limited value for farming, too. If you find a piece of vacant land that seems ideal for a rural subdivision, but later find out is zoned for agricultural use and cannot be divided, you may be stuck with a bare piece of land with no development potential.

Zoning Districts and Land Uses

Many of what ways in which owners use their land are incompatible with each other. For example, most people living in a sleepy residential neighborhood do not want a heavy industrial use, like an oil refinery, right next door. Similarly, many farm uses, which can be noisy, dusty, and stinky, are not compatible with residential uses. To guide certain types of development and avoid conflict between, zoning regulations have been adopted in most areas.

Common Land Use Controls

Many jurisdictions have two primary documents that relate to zoning. The first is called a comprehensive plan (also known as a “master plan” or “general plan”). The other is a zoning ordinance (sometimes called a “land use ordinance” or “development code”).

The comprehensive plan is the policy document that guides development in an area. The zoning ordinance, typically comprising both text and a zoning map, includes land use regulations that classify property into various zones, restrict the use of land, impose development standards, and include procedural requirements. The zoning ordinance implements the comprehensive plan.

Land Use Requirements and Restrictions

Where there is zoning, land is classified into specific districts. Common classifications include:

  • residential
  • commercial
  • industrial
  • agricultural, and
  • recreational.

These classifications usually break down into further subcategories. For example, residential zoning has subcategories for single-family and multiple-family zones. You may also encounter mixed use zoning, for example, a work-live zone where small scale retail and manufacturing is allowed along with a residential dwelling.

You can determine what district your property is in by reviewing the applicable zoning map. The zoning map is normally a part of the zoning ordinance. Most places make the map available on the Internet. If you cannot find the map online, the local planning department is usually helpful in directing you to where a copy can be found.

Different Uses in Different Zones

For each zoning district, the zoning ordinance will list allowable uses. In most cases, each allowable use will be listed as a “Permitted Use” or “Conditional Use” (or some variation of those terms).

Permitted uses are allowed outright, but may still require a permit. Conditional uses are subject to review by the local government. In many cases, the government will impose conditions on the use (for instance, extra parking or stormwater control).

Using single-family residential zone as an example, single-family dwellings and home occupations are often listed as outright permitted uses. An accessory dwelling, however, may be prohibited or allowed only as a conditional use. If the accessory dwelling is approved as a conditional use, the local government may impose additional off-street parking requirements among other conditions of approval.

Typically, if a use is not listed as an allowable use in a certain zone, it is prohibited in that zone.

Development Standards Also Apply

For a use to be approved, it must comply with the development standards in the applicable zoning ordinance. Development standards include design requirements and other criteria that control the manner in which a development must be completed. These standards vary depending on the specific use at issue. Development standards can include:

  • height restrictions
  • building setbacks
  • minimum lot size
  • lot coverage
  • density
  • transportation and access
  • parking
  • building and landscape design, and
  • drainage.

If a development cannot be completed in accordance with the development standards, the local government may not approve the use unless a variance is granted. Most jurisdictions will have a provision in the zoning ordinance explaining when a variance will be granted.


Many property owners divide their land into multiple lots with the hope of selling them at a profit. Subdivisions are a common type of land development. Subdividing land is subject to the zoning ordinance and perhaps even a separate subdivision ordinance.

There are usually simplified procedures if you want to divide your property into only two to four parcels. These are sometimes called lot splits or partition. The process is more complex for a large subdivision.

Subdivision laws may mandate the subdivision be developed to meet:

  • minimum lot size requirements (for example, 7,000 square feet)
  • street specifications
  • utility requirements, and
  • density requirements.

In some states, local governments have the power to require developers to pay for infrastructure for their projects. These are called System Development Charges (SDCs). These costs can include new utilities, roads, and even schools.

If you want to subdivide your land, be sure to talk to a land use attorney licensed to practice law in the state the property is located.

Zone Changes Are Not Easy

Just because your land is not zoned for a certain use does not mean the zoning cannot be changed to allow that use. Most zoning ordinances have provisions that outline the application procedure and requirements for zone changes.

The process can be difficult and time-consuming. At a minimum, it usually requires notice to the public and a land use hearing before the local government will grant or deny your request for a zone change.

Given the complexity associated with zoning issues, it is a good idea to hire local land use attorney to help review your land use plans and your options for handling zoning concerns.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What uses are legal on my property?
  • What are the limits on zoning laws, and what are my rights as a property owner?
  • In a property sale, who is responsible for confirming zoning status, the buyer or the seller?
  • If there is a zoning law change and my current land use is grandfathered in, does the exception apply to someone who buys my land?
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