Welcome to the Zoning section of FindLaw's Real Estate Center. Zoning ordinances typically divide an area into districts, or zones, where property use must conform to certain criteria.
Communities create zoning codes because they want to create a pleasant place for people to live. Very few people want to live near a huge factory, for instance. Parents may not want a strip club or a cannabis dispensary next to their child's school. But zoning codes also work to encourage development, and they respond to changing demographics.
As more people want to live closer or even alongside commercial areas and their workplaces, communities increase areas of mixed-use zoning. Some municipalities use zoning codes to encourage greater urban density.
This section provides legal information on zoning classifications, challenges to zoning ordinances, and more.
There are several different types of zones related to real estate development. The main zoning categories include:
- Residential: This zone is meant for houses, apartments, condominiums, and mobile homes. Residential zoning codes often address setbacks, building size, whether home businesses are permitted, and whether animals (such as chickens) may be kept on the property.
- Commercial: This is a broad category that includes offices, restaurants, shopping centers, and sometimes apartment buildings.
- Industrial: Industrial zones include factories, warehouses, and similar businesses.
- Agricultural: This zoning category protects agricultural land for farming and related activities. It typically limits the density of development and requires a minimum acreage.
- Rural: This may include residential areas zoned to allow horses or small livestock.
- Historic: Some communities have zoning laws that prevent alterations to historic buildings, often affecting those that qualify for tax incentives.
- Aesthetic: Some upscale communities have special zoning laws (similar to homeowner association rules) covering color schemes, landscaping, building materials, and other aesthetic elements.
- Mixed-Use: Some areas are zoned for mixed-use residential and commercial in order to encourage greater density.
Relief From Zoning Laws
Properties typically must conform to zoning laws or their owners risk fines and sanctions. But there may be instances when a property owner can change or dispute a zoning determination.
There are generally three ways to dispute a zoning ordinance:
- Ask for a variance. When a property owner asks for a variance, they are asking a zoning or planning commission for permission to deviate from the zoning code. They will need to prove their case at a public meeting.
- A property owner may dispute a zoning determination, particularly when a zoning code change affects an existing property. In cases like this, a property may be excused from complying with changes in a zoning code ("continuing existing use" or "lawful nonconforming use").
- Challenge the ordinance itself as improper.
Property owners should consult a real estate attorney before pursuing any action.
Zoning Laws and Homeowner Rights
If you live in a home located in an area that is zoned for residential use only, you generally may not use it for commercial purposes. While you can host a garage sale or let your child sell lemonade on the corner, you can't open a restaurant in your house. Similarly, in most communities, you can't live in your office building. Most office buildings are not zoned residential.
Before you make any changes to your property, make sure you understand your local zoning ordinances. Learn more about zoning laws by clicking on one of the links below.
Learn About Zoning
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