Welcome to the Zoning section of FindLaw's Real Estate Center. Zoning ordinances typically divide an area into districts or zones -- residential, commercial, and industrial -- and require that property use conform to the zone type. Most of these laws derive from a desire to create a pleasant place to live -- very few people would like to live near a huge factory, for instance. Special zoning laws may apply to certain types of businesses, such as strip clubs and marijuana dispensaries. However, zoning laws are changing rapidly as more people want to live closer or even alongside commercial areas and their workplaces, with some municipalities using zoning laws to encourage greater urban density. This section provides legal information on zoning compliance, challenges to zoning ordinances, and more.
Types of Zoning Classifications
There are several different types of zones related to real estate development, which tend to vary by community. The main types of zoning categories include the following:
- Residential - This zone is meant for homes, such as houses, apartments, condominiums, and mobile homes; residential zones often address whether farm animals (such as chickens) may be kept and whether home businesses are permitted
- Commercial - This is a broad category that may include offices, restaurants, shopping centers, even apartments
- Industrial - Industrial zones include factories, warehouses, and similar types of establishments
- Agricultural - This zone protects agricultural land for farming and related activities; typically limiting the density of development and minimum acreage for separate plots of land
- 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 home owner association rules) covering color schemes, landscaping, building materials, and other aesthetic elements
- Mixed - Some areas are zoned for mixed use in order to encourage a greater density of housing, retail, and office space
Relief From Zoning Laws
Property owners typically must conform to the zoning laws of their community or risk fines and other other sanctions. But there may be isolated instances where a property owner may feel compelled to dispute a zoning determination, particularly when zoning laws are changed and affect existing properties. There are generally two ways to dispute a zoning ordinance -- asking for an exception from the law or challenging the ordinance itself as improper. Whatever the reason for challenging a zoning law, property owners should consult with an attorney before pursuing such an action.
In some cases, a property may be excused from any change in zoning law, which is referred to as "continuing existing use" or "lawful nonconforming use." These exceptions also may be available for property owners who have made a substantial investment in their property. For example, someone who spent a lot of time and money renovating a Victorian house into a high-end restaurant -- even if it has yet to open for business -- may be eligible for a lawful nonconforming use exemption. But if the public use argument is sufficiently compelling, the exemption may be denied.
Another way to get relief from a zoning law is to request a "variance," in which property owners are granted permission to incorporate specified variations from the zoning laws.
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 uses. While you certainly can host a garage sale or let your child sell lemonade on the corner, you cannot open a restaurant in your house in places zoned residential. Similarly, most office buildings may not include housing. Make sure you learn your local ordinances with respect to zoning, as they tend to differ from one neighborhood to the next.
Learn more about zoning laws by clicking on one of the links below.