Zoning

What is Zoning, and Why Does it Matter?

Zoning Law Overview

Zoning is a set of laws by which a government controls the use and development of land.  In zoning, land is divided into categories, called zoning districts, each specified for agricultural, residential, commercial, industrial, or other purposes.

Zoning laws are enacted by city or county boards and can be found in the city or county ordinances.  Zoning ordinances that restrict what can be built in a zoning district are called “development standards”.  For example an ordinance that does not allow for a factory to be built in a residential district would be a “development standard”.  Land use ordinances include lists of “permitted uses” and “prohibited uses”. If an activity is not on the list of “permitted uses”, it may be prohibited use in the zoning district.  For example, if “package liquor store” is not one of the permitted uses in a certain zoning district, then it is prohibited to sell carry-out liquor in that district.

What Can be Done When a Desired Purpose is Not Permitted?

Zoning becomes an issue when a land owner or tenant wants to use land for a purpose that is not a permitted use or wants to build a structure that is not permitted by the development standards in the zoning district.  For example, a person who owns corner lot of land in a residential neighborhood may want to build a gas station on the land to serve the neighborhood and put up a sign advertising the price of gas.  However the property is likely “zoned residential”, meaning that it is in a residential zoning district, which in which it would be prohibited to build a commercial building or sign, or use the land to sell gas.

When a person wants to build a structure or use land in a way that is not permitted in a zoning district, the person can file a petition asking the zoning board to rezone the property, grant a zoning variance of use, or grant a zoning variance of development.  Thus in the above example, the land owner could file a petition asking the zoning board to rezone his property to put it in a different zoning district, or grant a variance (exception) from the standards of development or the permitted uses, and thus allow the land owner to build a gas station and sign, and sell gas on the land.

The Process for Rezoning and Obtaining Zoning Variances

Rezoning and variance petitions generally involve a multi-stage process.  First, the petitioner files the petition and required documents with the city or county planning department.  Then, if the government planner determines that all necessary documents have been filed, the matter is set for a hearing in front of the zoning board.

At this stage, the surrounding property owners and neighborhood associations must be given notice and an opportunity to object to the petition.  Then the zoning board hearing is held at which the petitioner, the government’s development planner, and any persons objecting to the petition (called “remonstrators”) have the opportunity to present evidence and argument as to why the petition should or should not be granted.

To maximize the chances of success in a rezoning or variance petition it is advisable for the petitioner to communicate with the government’s development planner, the surrounding property owners, and any home owners associations to see whether they support or object to the petition and try to resolve the objections prior to the hearing.

Before filing a rezoning or variance petition, a person should carefully consider whether they meet the qualifications for rezoning or variance.  These petitions and hearings have many technical, complicated issues and documentation requirements.  If a person files a petition and fails, some jurisdictions bar re-filing for one year.  Therefore, it is recommended that rezoning or variance petitioner use an attorney who has understands all of the questions and requirements for rezoning and variance petitions.

How I Help Clients Seeking Rezoning or Variances

The rezoning and variance processes can be very complicated.  It is critical that the appropriate or best path is selected, that all forms and documents be accurately and timely completed.

I help clients carefully evaluate their qualifications for rezoning and variances, complete the rezoning and variance petitions, compile all necessary documentation, communicate with the government’s development planner, the surrounding property owners, and any home owners associations to see whether they support or object to the petition and try to resolve the objections prior to the hearing, and represent clients at hearings to obtain rezoning and variances.

If you are in need of affordable representation to obtain rezoning or variances, please call my office.