Why It’s Important to Understand Zoning Before Buying Real Estate

A New Way to Look at ZoningThe first zoning ordinances in the United States were passed in Los Angeles and New York City in the early years of the 20th century. By about 1920, the Department of Commerce became involved, writing model plans and ordinances designed to help individual states formulate ways to control growth and development in their cities. Historically, zoning regulations were intended as a way to separate residential areas from land used for other purposes.

Over time, as cities grew and land use became more diverse, zoning regulations also became more complicated. Today, it’s important to understand local zoning ordinances, whether you’re interested in buying or building a home or a skyscraper, a restaurant or an office building, a corner grocery or a church. Land must be zoned to allow a specific use, or at least the desired use must not be specifically prohibited. As an example, most municipalities regulate how close a bar or liquor store may be to a school.

Most zoning ordinances are enacted by local authority, a municipality or a county, for instance. In some cases, regional guidelines have been established in an effort to plan for future development or to provide for reasonable transportation corridors between communities. As communities continue to grow, these regional development plans become even more important for city planners, counties and state governments.

Most cities and towns in the United States have zoning rules, with some notable exceptions, like the city of Houston, Texas. The fourth-largest city in the nation does, however, regulate land development within its boundaries and has established rules that govern ways property may be subdivided.

For informational purposes only. Always consult with a licensed real estate professional before proceeding with any real estate transaction.

Types of Zoning Regulation

The specifics of zoning vary substantially from one jurisdiction to the next, but there are typically broad categories applicable to most areas. These include:

  • Residential requirements
  • Commercial districts
  • Industrial zones
  • Agricultural areas
  • Rural regions or unincorporated districts
  • Multi-use development

Additionally, many cities have established Historic Zones or Conservation Districts in order to preserve the architectural integrity and history of a defined area. These districts typically have highly restrictive requirements for building and development. They also may have stringent rules that govern authorized materials, colors, styles and even landscaping. This type of aesthetic zoning is sometimes initiated at the request of area residents who wish to preserve and protect a desirable neighborhood’s character and appearance.

Function and Intent of Zoning

Zoning regulations in general establish the rules under which certain uses are either allowed or prohibited. In many cases, the zoning also specifies height restrictions, minimum lot size and allowable lot coverage. In residential areas, zoning rules might address minimum or maximum square footage, off-street parking spaces, utility line placement, front and side setbacks, and even fencing.

Zoning rules for commercial districts can be even more demanding, mandating required parking, lighting, signage, street access and other conditions.

In almost all cases, land owners and citizens have the right to request a variance from established zoning requirements for a specific reason. Such requests are typically reviewed by municipal planning and land use officials, and requests are sometimes discussed in public hearings. Other residents or citizens have the right to protest. The process is always subject to review and appeal, but in some cases, final resolution can be a lengthy process.

Because the needs of individual neighborhoods and whole towns and cities tend to change over time, zoning regulations and requirements are always subject to refinement and alteration. In older cities, former commercial and warehouse districts have been rezoned to accommodate new uses. A growing contemporary trend is the reclamation of inner city land to serve as community gardens or public green space. In a few innovative communities, existing open space is being redesignated as land for “tiny houses“. All are exciting new zoning directions.

For informational purposes only. Always consult with a licensed real estate professional before proceeding with any real estate transaction.

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