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Zoning Problems

You may be unpleasantly surprised to find you can't use your property as intended without violating zoning ordinances. There are many ways a lawyer can help you to get around the technical requirements of the regulations.

Non-Conforming Use

Existing properties are often used in a manner that's inconsistent with a new zoning ordinance. Such uses are referred to as non-conforming uses because they don't conform to the requirements of the zoning ordinance. A use may be non-conforming because:

  • the nature or characteristics of the building itself don't conform to the zoning ordinance

  • the activity going on in the building doesn't conform

For example, a factory located in a residential zone is a non-conforming use. A two-story building located in a one-story zone is also a non-conforming use.Generally, you don't have to quit an existing non-conforming use and may continue after the adoption of a zoning ordinance.However, the right to continue a non-conforming use may be lost if the non-conforming use is abandoned. For example, if a fast-food restaurant is operated in a storefront in an area that is later zoned to exclude all food-related operations, the restaurant may continue to operate. If the restaurant closes, the right to continue the use may be lost if the same restaurant is not reopened or if some other similar food-related use is not begun within a certain period of time. If the building itself is non-conforming, the right to be non-conforming may be lost if the building is completely, or even partially, destroyed. Amortization is another way to limit non-conforming uses. Under this approach, a non-conforming use is permitted to continue for a specific period of time, after which it must be converted to a conforming use.

Conditional Use

A conditional use is a use which is permitted under a zoning ordinance, but which must meet certain conditions. For example, a zoning ordinance may permit professional offices in a residential zone if at least four off-street parking places are provided. When a use is conditional, the zoning ordinance often will require the property owner to file an application with local officials so that they may determine whether the conditions have been met.


A variance or special use permit is an exception to the requirements of a zoning ordinance. Most statutes permitting the adoption of zoning ordinances also detail the circumstances under which variances may be granted. Usually, you must show some kind of hardship to justify getting a variance. Some examples of hardship are:

  • an undersized lot on which a variance is needed to construct any useful structure

  • an odd-shaped lot cannot satisfy the side-yard and setback requirements for the construction of a residence that would otherwise be permitted in the zone

Spot Zoning

Local land use plans and zoning ordinances usually contain restrictions on land uses in specific areas (or zones) outlined in the plan or ordinance. Once local officials have adopted a plan and ordinance, property owners may seek exceptions to the requirements and limitations either through:

  • an amendment to the plan or ordinance

  • an application for a variance or special use permit

In both cases, the amendment or application may be opposed on the grounds that permitting special exceptions for specific properties is inconsistent with the overall land use plan or ordinance, and constitutes illegal spot zoning. Whether or not a particular exception constitutes illegal spot zoning or is merely a permissible exception greatly varies according to:

  • the facts of the property use

  • the provisions of the applicable enabling statute

  • the land use plan in question