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Zoning is a land-use term you should be familiar with. Here’s what it means.

What is zoning?

Zoning is the method governments use to control how land is developed and used. A local zoning ordinance may allow homes — but not factories — to be built in a particular area, for example.

Deeper definition

A government, normally a municipality or county, sets the zoning rules and regulations for their locality. Typically, they divide their jurisdictions into zones and classify the zones by how they can be used. For example, an R-1 residential zone may allow only single-family homes and not apartment complexes. A C-1 commercial zone might allow commercial and industrial buildings. Some areas are zoned for mixed use, such as a combination of residential and commercial.

Zoning laws are meant to preserve order, safety and attractiveness in a community and to minimize disputes between landowners. For example, zoning is what prevents a hospital from opening up next to a city dump or a beet farm from running through the middle of downtown.

Property owners must comply with local zoning laws. Someone who buys property in a residential neighborhood cannot raise livestock there unless the land has been zoned for such activity. Zoning laws may restrict a homeowner from opening a vehicle repair shop in his driveway or a commercial coffee stand on his front porch. Property owners who want to use their land in a way not permitted by zoning laws must apply for an exception — sometimes referred to as a special-use permit.

Prior to zoning codes, most cities regulated building through nuisance laws. If an individual did not like the way his neighbor used the property, he would take his neighbor to court, and a judge would decide the issue.

By the 20th century, that process had become cumbersome. Court cases clogged the system. Rather than react to problems that already existed, cities decided to write zoning laws to pre-empt legal challenges. There was no question, for example, that factories and warehouses could not encroach upon shopping districts, or that buildings could not be built so tall that they blocked the sun for all neighboring buildings. Before construction took place, builders understood the existing zoning codes would be enforced.

Zoning laws make court cases easier to decide. Zoning removes the ambiguity if a defendant has the right to use a property in a particular way.

Zoning laws can change over time. If zoning laws become more restrictive, those who owned property before the stricter laws were enacted are generally “grandfathered in” and allowed to continue using the property as they did before the changes were implemented.

Zoning examples

There are at least nine types of zoning laws:

  • Residential, including single-family residences, apartments, duplexes, suburban homesteads, trailer parks, co-ops and condominiums. Residential zoning covers issues such as the number of structures allowed on a property.
  • Commercial, including shopping centers, nightclubs, office buildings, hotels, warehouses, and some apartment complexes.
  • Industrial, including manufacturing plants and storage facilities.
  • Agricultural, particularly farms and ranches.
  • Rural, including farms, ranches and residences zoned to allow horses or cattle.
  • Aesthetic, including color schemes, fences, solar panels, satellite dishes, decks, landscaping, and other visual issues.
  • Permitted and accessory uses, which represent exceptions within particular zoning categories. For example, a small hotel not zoned for a restaurant may be permitted to have one connected as an accessory.
  • Combination, which combines any number of zoning designations.
  • Historic, for buildings and homes over 50 years old.

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