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Land Use Laws

Laws affecting the use and possession of real estate fall under the umbrella of "land use laws." Sometimes, the real property you own may be used by someone who doesn’t legally own or possess your land. This may include:

  1. Public entities, such as local government or city workers
  2. People who may frequent the land in various settings, such as mail carriers, service workers, and even trespassers

All states have special rules concerning land use. As part of its police powers, the government can regulate land use to accommodate the following:

  • Homeowners
  • Commercial real property owners
  • Local industry
  • The general public

State law and local laws create initiatives and incentives to help develop and resolve land use issues. This section provides information and resources on a variety of land use matters, including:


Technically, an easement is a "nonpossessory interest" in another party's property. In other words, a neighbor may need access to a portion of another person's land, but they don’t necessarily want to have an ownership stake. A landowner may not have a problem with their neighbor accessing their land. Nevertheless, the landowner wants to be sure they aren’t liable for any accidents that may occur on their property. So, an easement is a legal process acknowledging another party's limited use of one's land.

For example, let's say you purchase a beach vacation property. But the only way to access it is along a gravel road that cuts through your neighbor's property. You can create an easement with your neighbor to use that road to access your property. The easement document typically indicates the scope of this use.

Eminent Domain

Eminent domain is the right of a government entity to take private property for public use with payment of compensation for the land.

Different government bodies have different criteria. But generally, the government must be able to prove a compelling reason for its planned use. One of the more popular uses of eminent domain is for building freeways. But it must be for public (not private) use.

When the government takes land, it must compensate the original property owner fairly. A fair price would be comparable to what the property owner would fetch on the open market for its highest and best use. Landowners may challenge the government's purported "public use" argument or petition for a better price.


To trespass is to enter someone else's land without their consent. Trespassing isn't always a crime (or actionable in a civil suit), such as in the case of:

  • Deliveries
  • Emergencies (e.g., firefighter aid)
  • Other situations where consent may be implied

For someone to be liable (either in civil law or criminally), there must be some level of intent to trespass. If land is fenced or there is a "no trespassing" sign, then it is assumed that a would-be trespasser knows it’s private property.

Land Use & Zoning Rules

Most cities and other local municipalities regulate how a given parcel of land may be used through zoning laws. These land use regulations are why office buildings are seldom located within residential neighborhoods. They also explain why heavy industry (oil refining, for example) is not found next to shopping malls. Some areas are zoned for mixed uses, such as apartments, offices, and retail shops along a town center.

Zoning regulations often change as cities and counties transform. They are sometimes changed to encourage more business activity or make way for a special building project. During the land use planning stage of land development, local zoning laws may even provide for:

  • Occupancy and lot size limitations in residential areas
  • Open spaces to promote public health and environmental laws
  • Residential zones for multifamily homeownership and single-family homes
  • Comprehensive plans for affordable housing

Municipal law may allow a zoning board to alter the use of property through rezoning. For example, an area previously designated for commercial use may be changed by amendment for residential use. Suppose increased population densities in New York City require creating more open space. The government may use different types of zoning adjustments to achieve this goal. That includes rezoning commercial areas to create parks and other public spaces.

Click on a topic below to learn more about land use laws.

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