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What is Zoning?

Residential zones are reserved for housing and similar developments.
A zoning law can prohibit the look and feel of a particular area by doing things like restricting the total number of a floors in a residence.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 July 2014
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Zoning refers to a common practice in city planning, wherein a master plan is developed to decide how land should best be utilized. The master plan breaks a region up into various “zones,” dictating what sorts of things can be built in these zones and what kinds of businesses are acceptable. Zoning laws can get extremely complex, and many people who are considering the purchase of land would be well advised to consult a lawyer about prevailing land use laws, to ensure that they will be able to use their land as they wish to.

These laws serve several functions. To begin with, they protect existing businesses and residences. For example, in a region without zoning laws, a company could build a factory in the middle of a residential zone, potentially impacting the quality of life for residents. The laws ensure that land use is consistent within a specific region, and that conflicting uses like heavy industry and residential housing are kept separate from each other for the convenience of all.

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Many cities also use zoning laws to protect their look and feel. For example, a law could restrict construction in an area to under a set number of stories, or it could block the construction of apartment complexes within a particular neighborhood. The laws are also used to ensure that neighbors do not infringe on each other with new construction; for example, most require the footprint of a new structure to be significantly smaller than the lot it is built on, ensuring that people don't, for example, build homes which block the views of neighbors.

Cities can also use such laws to promote specific industries. For example, a city might open up a light industrial zone to encourage companies to migrate, or, in a rural area, a distinct agricultural zone might be created to encourage people to continue farming rather than building housing developments or converting their farms to industrial use. Essentially, this process helps to control development, ideally with the goal of making it sustainable, pleasant, and non-controversial, although these goals are not always met.

Historically, zoning laws were also used for the purpose of racial, ethnic, religious, or class discrimination. Many nations have struck such laws from their books because they are no longer legal, and occasionally, one may be challenged in the court on the grounds that it unfairly discriminates. Laws also face legal challenges in places like the United States, where some people argue that they come dangerously close to “appropriation,” a practice banned under the bill of rights.

It is possible to rezone an area. For example, in the early 21st century, the concept of mixed use districts with residential and commercial uses became quite popular. Many cities embarked on rezoning campaigns, labeling the resulting districts “mixed use” or “live/work” areas and promoting them are socially progressive. This process can be very complex, and it often drags on for years while people debate the ultimate impact of the decision.

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Discuss this Article

titans62
Post 7

@Izzy78 - I would agree about a lot of zoning codes just being there to help out high-ranking people.

In the neighborhood where I live, one of the car dealerships started buying up a ton of houses, tearing them down, and putting in car lots. It eventually became an eyesore, because a nice car lot turned into a sprawling ocean of blacktop.

A lot of us in the neighborhood petitioned the zoning department to change the rules to stop commercial properties from being developed in that area. Conveniently enough, one of the board members was the car dealer's brother, and he lobbied the other board members to vote against the change all while claiming it had nothing to do with the fact that it was his brother involved.

Izzy78
Post 6

@jmc88 - I also grew up in a small town that had some zoning problems. I have found that a lot of the zoning rules come down to what benefits the city council or whoever is making the laws.

In the town, there were a couple trailer parks all owned by one individual. They didn't look nice by any means, but they weren't creating a safety hazard, and they were low-cost housing. They made a law, though, saying that new trailers couldn't be added within city limits unless they were less than 10 years old, which really hurt the person who owned the properties.

There was a lot of speculation that it was because one of the council members also owned rental properties and wanted to buy the guy out so that he could remove the trailers and build an apartment. Since I don't live there anymore, I'm not sure what ever happened.

matthewc23
Post 5

@jmc88 - It seems like that would be a very difficult case that will probably come down to the court. I don't know if cities get the sole choice as to how zoning laws work or if state laws also come into effect.

I think in a lot of places, changes in zoning regulations don't apply to pre-existing buildings, but only to new construction. Obviously, a city can't change the law and then make people shut down their businesses.

If the factory hasn't been built yet, and the city moves quickly, I don't see why they couldn't stop it.

jmc88
Post 4

Zoning seems like it can get pretty complicated. In the town where I live, there has been a lot of recent discussion about zoning laws. The town is very small, so people were pretty much allowed to do what they wanted in the past, and it all worked out pretty well. No one really took advantage of their rights, because they wanted to try to keep everyone happy.

Lately, though, there has been talk of a factory wanting to put a plant in, and people are worried about it. On one hand, it would create a ton of jobs, since they would hire people mostly from the town. On the other hand, there are a few machines that would create some pollution. The company claims that there will just be stacks for steam, but we're not too sure there won't be some smell to go along with it.

What I am curious about is whether the city can change zoning laws for a lot that has already been purchased. That seems to be what they are trying to do.

Catapult
Post 3

I wish zoning laws were better posted in residential areas. I once had my car towed because there was a law about moving your car every 48 hours, and I was unaware of it; this was in college, and parking permits were expensive. I also get annoyed at people who are passive-aggressive about not wanting you to park on the street- it's public, after all. I once got a note left on my car that said simply "PLEASE DO NOT PARK ON THIS BLOCK". You can micromanage your own land, but not the street.

vogueknit17
Post 2

@anon19868 - You may have to contact your city about that. Unless it is directly affecting you in some way or breaking some sort of parking law, I imagine that people can park there.

anon19868
Post 1

can a person park his car on a piece of land in front of our home that is owned by the city but we have maintained for 50 years....does the grandfather clause apply to this situation?

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