Zoning requirements are created when a municipality or another tier of government divides land into areas — called zones — and creates regulations for development in each zone.
Zones are often defined for single uses (although, they may also combine several compatible activities).
The planning rules for each zone are especially relevant when you are purchasing land and altering it.
This is because zoning specifies the uses for land and will restrict and guide what you may be able to develop on your property.
In this blog, we’ll discuss the top things you need to know about zoning requirements as you buy and sell land.
1. What is zoning?
Zoning laws regulate the use of land within a municipality.
They guide the way in which land can be developed and the purposes for which land may be used.
There are various zoning classifications (residential districts, commercial districts, industrial districts, etc.) and then more specific zoning requirements for each classification.
These zoning districts indicate what the municipality has designated that the land can be used for.
In some cases, there are mixed-used zones, but for the most part, single-use zones are more common.
2. Why do zoning requirements exist?
Historically, municipalities have created zoning requirements and classifications as a way to preserve the health and safety of the community.
At its most basic, zoning classifications separate various land uses into different zones.
This helps ensure that homes aren’t placed near a factory, gas station or other polluting land use type that could potentially harm residents and lower property values.
However, zoning codes also contain more detailed requirements that regulate development density within each zoning classification.
These kinds of zoning regulations spell out specific rules on maximum building height, minimum lot size, and the distance a house must be set back from the road.
3. What are the different types of zoning classifications?
A zoning classification tells us what a particular piece of land can be used for.
Here are some of the most commonly used classifications.
Residential zoning classifications don’t apply to just single-family houses, but to all of the different types of dwellings that people call home.
The regulations and requirements themselves can vary quite a bit depending on the types of residences that are expected to be developed in the zone.
That said, many residential districts are broken down into sub-districts, which often differ in the density of development allowed.
For example, a municipality may have three subdistricts:
- R-1: Single-family homes with a maximum of one household per lot
- R-2: Two- or three-family homes with a maximum of three households per lot
- R-3: Multifamily residential with a maximum density of 20 households per lot
This is more commonly referred to as “commercial” zoning.
These are a city’s business districts where you can find shopping, dining, office space, etc.
If you’ve ever wondered why you don’t have a coffee shop sitting right next to your house, this is why.
All of the places that people go to earn and spend their money are clustered together in a commercial zone.
Municipalities will regulate how close a business zone can be to other zones depending on the types of businesses and how much foot traffic those businesses typically draw.
Furthermore, certain business district buildings could have restrictions like a maximum building height, a setback minimum, or a requirement to provide parking.
This typically depends on what the municipality lays out.
Land that is zoned for industrial uses includes businesses that deal with light, medium, and heavy industry.
This could be anything from smaller wholesalers to warehouses to heavy-duty manufacturing facilities.
Industrial zones are typically kept far away from residential spaces.
Areas with agricultural zones are those that have a farming industry.
This type of zoning is meant to protect farmland from other uses and to allow the space this industry needs to run efficiently and effectively.
This type of zoning is used for museums, libraries, schools, publicly owned recreational facilities (i.e. pools), or places of worship.
Often, this designation largely depends on your local municipality.
An open space zoning helps to protect undeveloped land.
Think parks, playgrounds, vacant lots, etc.
We’ve been talking about zones as if they’re always used for single uses, but this isn’t always the case.
Mixed-use zoning allows multiple uses within a single district.
This is only permitted if the uses have been deemed compatible with each other.
Most often, you’ll see this in downtown areas where buildings have both residential units in upper stories and retail units on the ground floor.
Planned Unit Development:
When a developer creates a large subdivision, the local municipality will sometimes give the new subdivision a special zoning designation, Planned Unit Development (PUD), rather than one of the conventional zones (such as residential).
This special designation will usually outline the requirements that were approved when the subdivision was created.
This designation allows a single development to utilize multiple types of land uses.
For example, a ski resort is often a planned unit development.
It has outdoor open spaces, hotels or short-term rental properties, restaurants, stores, and other types of land uses all within the same area.
If an area has many historic buildings or structures, a municipality’s zoning ordinance may provide certain protections for those structures.
This type of zoning is a flexible alternative to conventional zoning.
It creates quantifiable performance standards for land development rather than prescriptive regulations centered on specific land uses.
This helps municipalities to minimize adverse effects on adjacent properties as well as maximize positive outcomes.
For example, the City of Fremont California recently used performance zoning on a 900-acre development next to a light rail station.
Instead of classifying the area into specific zones centered on a use type (residential, commercial, etc), the city created metrics that the developer was required to meet, such as:
- creating a specific number of jobs
- providing a certain number of affordable homes
- meeting strict carbon footprint standards
So long as the developer met these performance-based metrics, they were able to design the complex as they saw fit.
This type of zoning encourages developers to undertake public benefit improvements in return for receiving additional benefits from the municipality.
For example, under Inclusionary Housing programs, a developer is able to increase the size of their building beyond what is typically allowed in the zoning code in exchange for providing a certain number of affordable housing units.
4. How does zoning work?
To create zoning requirements, there must first be a master plan in place.
Planners consult the city’s “master plan” to understand what the municipality’s current and future needs and goals are.
A master plan will evaluate the community’s transportation needs, economy, challenges, and features (people, homes, parks, businesses, etc.).
Once the master plan exists, zones are created.
These zones are laid out in a zoning ordinance along with zoning maps that are used to help put a city’s plan into action.
A zoning ordinance lists out all the zoning requirements, regulations, and laws that govern how land can be used and explains exactly what the boundaries of the area’s different zones are.
5. Can I change my land’s zoning requirements?
While a zone may be designated a primary use, some zoning ordinances may also include the ability to apply for a special use or conditional use permit that allows the property to be used in a way that it wasn’t originally zoned for.
In this case, you’d just be seeking approval to use the land temporarily for that purpose and the approval would show that it is compatible with the current zone.
Furthermore, zoning can also change over time.
It’s possible that property that used to be aligned with certain zoning requirements or regulations no longer meets that standard.
In this case, it may be permitted to remain as it is and still be considered legally compliant.
This is called “legal nonconforming use”.
Finally, a municipality may also amend its zoning ordinance or rezone certain areas as its needs and directions shift.
How zoning requirements and regulations change will depend on the municipality.
Typically, a planning commission must consider the proposed changes and try to determine whether they’re in the best interest of the community.
After that, they’ll gather all relevant data and hold public hearings to allow those affected by the proposed changes to explain why they approve or disapprove.
Ultimately, the city council or other governing body will review all of the information and testimonies provided.
They can decide whether or not to approve or reject the change.
Note: While it may sound promising that you can pursue a rezoning process, know that this is not typical.
In fact, most municipalities frown upon rezonings that change the allowable land use of only one lot.
These are called “spot rezonings” and are often illegal.
Occasionally, municipalities may change zoning requirements or regulations.
You may also be able to get a temporary special use permit.
Other than that, you’re unlikely to get residential land rezoned to commercial land just because you ask for it.
6. How do I know my local zoning laws?
Zoning laws will vary from city to city.
The best way to understand how zoning requirements impact you is to check with your local government.
7. When do I need to know zoning requirements?
In most cases, landowners do not have to worry about zoning requirements unless they’re making changes to their property.
For instance, if you’re looking to make an addition to your house, add a chicken coop, or build a fence, then your city almost certainly has something to say about it.
Having said that, most municipalities do not have terribly restrictive zoning requirements.
Check your zoning requirements beforehand to make sure you know what you are and aren’t allowed to do.
8. What is a variance?
Districts will often lay out specific zoning requirements and regulations for a property.
However, in some cases, due to the specific shape or special physical characteristics of the property, it may not be possible to meet these requirements or a property owner may desire to develop a site in a different way than is permitted by the zoning regulations.
In these cases, a variance is needed.
A variance is an official act of the municipality that allows a property owner to use or develop a property in a way that would not be permitted otherwise under the zoning requirements of that municipality.
The Zoning Board of Adjustment is able to grant these variances from zoning requirements if the applicant is able to prove his or her case.
Throughout the process, the applicant must demonstrate that the granting of a variance will not create any harm to the public or impair the intent and purpose of the Zoning Ordinance.
9. What are some common zoning terms I should know?
Like many other topics in the real estate industry, zoning comes with its own set of jargon.
Here are some terms that may pop up as you’re beginning to learn about zoning.
Accessory Dwelling Unit: This is a residential unit that exists on the same lot as single-family homes but is an independent residence (i.e. guest houses)
Accessory Uses: Structures that don’t fulfill the primary purpose of the land but are incidental to the primary purpose (i.e. detached garages on a residential lot)
Easements: A type of land-use restriction that gives an entity the right to use land owned by someone else for a specific purpose (i.e. utility company running utility lines through your property)
Floor Area Ratio (FAR): How much floor space a building has relative to its total lot size; some zoning ordinances have restrictions on what FAR is acceptable
Lot Coverage: The amount of lot that is occupied by buildings and other structures; some zoning ordinances specify a maximum percentage of lot coverage permitted
Parking Minimum: This specifies the minimum number of off-street parking spots a development must have
Setback: This defines the distance a structure has to be from a lot’s boundaries
Upzoning: A change in zoning laws that allows for a greater density in an area
As a landowner, any time you want to alter the land you live on, you’ll need to consult the zoning requirements.
For more information about your zoning ordinance and regulations, check directly with your municipality as laws and regulations change from city to city.
Do you still have zoning questions?
Let us know in the comments.
And for more information on buying, selling, or investing in vacant land, check out our other resources below.
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If reading this article got you interested in land investing, you can check out our article on How to Get Started in Land Investing.
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.