Municipal authorities are tasked with deciding how their cities should be divided among commercial and private land owners. These divisions, created through a set of ordinances called zoning laws, enhance the function and appearance of a city. They also safeguard historic districts that otherwise could be compromised because of private or commercial development. Before you buy a house, start a business, or invest in real estate, learn more about these municipal ordinances and how they can impact your role as a property owner.

An Overview of Zoning Laws

As noted, cities use these laws to determine for what purpose property within a neighborhood or district can be utilized. They exist primarily to make a city a more pleasant and practical place to live. However, they also are increasingly being used to encourage greater urban density in some locations.

These ordinances are typically subject to variances depending on city leadership. Zoning practices also depend significantly on population increase or decline within a city's boundaries.

Common Zone Categories

A property's classification can fall into one of several different zoning categories typically utilized by cities in the U.S. The most common seven categories include:

1. Residential: Property zoned for residential purpose can be used for the construction and maintenance of structures like:

  • Single family houses
  • Apartments
  • Condominiums
  • Mobile homes

The zoning practices for residential districts also will stipulate what kinds of animals can be raised on the property and whether or not homeowners can run a business from their residences.

2. Commercial: Commercial property is used for the construction and function of offices, restaurants, shopping centers, and other types of businesses. Depending on the variances for commercial zones, it also may allow for some types of apartments.

3. Industrial: Industrial zones are set aside for factories, warehouses, and other types of businesses.

4. Agricultural: Agricultural zones are used for the set up and function of farms, ranches, and other endeavors related to raising crops and animals for food or consumer goods.

5. Historic: City leaders can establish historic zones to protect historic buildings from demolition or damages. Historic zones also can give tax incentives to people who own property within the zone's boundaries.

6. Aesthetic: Aesthetic zones are most often found in upscale neighborhoods. The zone allows entities like homeowners' associations to establish rules for aesthetics like:

  • allowable home colors or color schemes
  • landscaping
  • building materials
  • types of pets or animals allowed to be raised in the zone

7. Mixed: Property within a mixed zone may be allowed to be used for a variety of residential, commercial, or other uses.

Property Owner Rights and Responsibilities

Why should you pay attention to and abide by the zone ordinances in which you live or do business? The foremost reason involves avoiding fines and penalties for violating the purpose for which your property has been categorized.

For instance, if your house is located within a residential zone, it may be illegal for you to run a home-based business. You could risk being fined by the city if you conduct business that goes beyond holding a seasonal garage sale or sidewalk lemonade stand.

Second, these ordinances make it possible for homeowners and people who lease their residences to live away from areas that could compromise their quality of life. Most people, for example, do not want to live next to a busy shopping center or down the street from a loud and smelly factory. By abiding by the zones for which your property is categorized, you do your part to make your city a more practical and pleasant place to live.

Zoning Relief Options

But what happens when the property that you own is placed in a different zone category by the city? Do you have to shut down or relocate your business or sell your home? Fortunately, you may be able to seek zoning relief from the city so that you can continue to live or do business without interruption.

You can pursue this relief in three separate but effective ways. The first method involves asking the city for an exemption from the law. You may be exempt from the ordinance if you have invested a lot of money into the property or have owned the property for a significant length of time, particularly if that time precedes the current zone classification. The city may grant you continued existing use or lawful nonconforming use exemption.

You can also ask the city for a variance for your property. This exception would allow you to incorporate the manner in which you utilize your property into the zone classification and also allow you to avoid being fined or penalized by the city.

Finally, you can challenge the classification and present an argument for why the property should revert back to its former zone category. It is imperative that you build a solid case for your challenge if you want to avoid having your case denied by the city. You may present the best argument by retaining an attorney who practices in real estate law to assist you with your case.

Cities create districts and neighborhoods to determine how property should best be utilized. These zones lay out the terms for whether or not a plot of land can be used for commercial or residential purposes or even set aside for farming or industrial use. Property owners may be able to challenge or gain an exemption from zone ordinances by petitioning the city.