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Zoning Overview

Zoning Ordinances and Regulations

Zoning ordinances and regulations are laws that define and restrict how you can use your property. Cities, counties, townships, and other local governments adopt zoning plans in order to set development standards to assure that land is used for the common good.

Why Zoning Is Such a Big Issue

Zoning laws come into play on every single real estate development, regardless of how big or small, so if you are thinking about buying property or making improvements to property you already own, you'd better be sure you understand the zoning restrictions before you commit to anything. One zoning use is typically not compatible with another. For example, a commercial building usually cannot be constructed on property that's zoned for residential uses. If you buy open ground to build your dream house that is in an agricultural zone, you may not be able to build it without a change in the zoning. Getting the zoning changed on property is a very difficult process. It requires a process of giving public notice and then having a variance approved by government agencies that oversee enforcement of the zoning plan. Opposition to zoning changes by neighbors and other interested parties can be fierce. You can find out how property is zoned by calling your local planning department. They can also explain what you would need to do to get a variance. Before getting too involved in a zoning issue, it would no doubt be in your best interests to hire a local land use attorney to help you through the process.

Zoning Restrictions

Use requirements refer to how property can be used. Typical zonings categories include:

  • Residential

  • Commercial

  • Industrial

  • Agricultural

  • Recreational

These categories usually break down into further subcategories. For example, there are subcategories for single-family (i.e., residences) and multiple-family (e.g., apartments or condominiums) residential use. Zoning laws will set forth many use restrictions, such as:

  • the height and overall size of buildings

  • their proximity to one another

  • what percentage of the area of a building lot may contain structures

  • what particular kinds of facilities must be included with certain kinds of uses

For example, zoning ordinances will typically limit the number of stories and total height of a building, require a certain number of parking spaces for a commercial building, and require a driveway and garage on a suburban residential property. The bulk requirements of a zoning ordinance refer to:

  • the height and size restrictions on buildings including the number of stories in a building

  • the square feet of space which a building provides

  • the percentage of area it covers on a building lot

  • the minimum lot size requirements, if any

The setback and side-yard requirements of a zoning ordinance refer to the distance between the front and back property lines and from the side property lines.


Land is divided up into legal parcels. If you own land and want to divide it up, you have to go through an authorization process to create new legal parcels. Most zoning ordinances place limitations on a property owner's ability to subdivide land. There are rigorous procedural requirements for notices, hearings, and consideration by zoning authorities before permission can be given to subdivide property. There are usually simplified procedures if you want to divide your property into only a few parcels (e.g., not more that 4 parcels). These are sometimes called lot splits. A major subdivision, however, will be subject to more rigorous rules. At a minimum, these rules would include requirements that a developer prepare a site plan or a subdivision map, which is a comprehensive map showing the planned use of a particular property in detail. In addition, subdivision laws may require:

  • the lots be of a particular size

  • the streets be of a particular width and quality

  • the water, gas, and sewer lines of a particular type be supplied

Some states permit local governments to require developers who are subdividing property to pay for some portion of the municipal improvements that are necessary for residential use, such as:

  • Sewers

  • Schools

  • Roads

A subdivision will go through many public hearings, giving ample opportunity for anyone to speak in favor of or against a project.