Zoning of real property affects the legal land use of a parcel or area. Learn how to identify zoning types and the permissions and restrictions associated with them.
What is Zoning?
Most communities in the United States are governed by zoning laws. Zoning laws are the regulations and/or restrictions for land use. These guidelines are established by officials at the local level and divide the city or county into different geographic zones, identifying what uses can and cannot be made on each parcel. The overall objective of zoning is to protect public health, safety, and welfare, to promote compatibility between various land uses and developments, and to promote an attractive and well-planned community. In California, all land under the jurisdiction of a city or county must be zoned.
Types of Zoning Classification
There are eight main categories for land use. Each category designates the land usage for a particular parcel or group of parcels. Uses must be consistent with the city or county’s general plan, local plans, and/or community standards district, these may limit the type and intensity of use. Most communities will have additional subcategories. Visit your local Department of Regional Planning for specific zoning regulations in your area.
A = Agriculture
Permitted uses include single-family residences, crops, greenhouses, and raising of livestock
C = Commercial
Permitted uses include commercial services and retail sales
R1 = Single Family Home
Permitted uses include single-family residences only
R2 = Duplex (2 units)
Permitted uses include two family residences (duplex), or a single-family residence
R3 = Multiple Residential Units (more than 2 units)
Permitted uses include multifamily houses, apartments, or a single-family residence
PD = Planned Development
Permitted uses include single-family residences within a planned unit development
M = Manufacturing
Permitted uses include commercial services, retail sales, manufacturing and assembly
P = Public Uses
Permitted uses include open spaces, parks, playgrounds, trails, and structures designed for public recreation
The second list that usually appears in a zoning district are those that are not allowed as a matter of right, but that might be allowed if the owner obtains a special permit, known as a conditional use permit (CUP). A local planning commission, zoning administrator, or other local official grants these permits. The city or county normally has wide discretion to approve the request, to approve it subject to conditions, or to deny it.
Once a conditional use permit is granted, it usually runs with the land. The permit in effect is issued to the property, no to the applicant. If the owner sells the property to another person, the property will still be able to operate under the same terms as with the previous owner.
Any uses that are not listed as either allowed or conditional are presumptively prohibited uses by the zoning code.
Zoning ordinances often list restrictions applicable to each parcel within a given zoning district. Examples of restrictions include height limits, setbacks, and minimum lot size.
Legally Nonconforming Uses
If a city or county changes the zoning of a parcel so that the existing uses are no longer allowed by the new zoning ordinance, those existing activities are known as legally nonconforming uses. Nonconforming uses that existed prior to the adoption of the current zoning that were lawful when established are normally allowed to continue indefinitely.
Nonconforming uses cannot be continued if they constitute a nuisance. Furthermore, because they in effect create a favored class not subject to the current law, a nonconforming use normally cannot be expanded (for instance to include an adjacent parcel).
Public entities have the power to eliminate legally nonconforming uses in two ways. First, they can ban them immediately and pay the owner compensation for a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Second, they can amortize the use, giving the landowner a period of time to continue the use in order to recapture the owner’s investment. At the end of that time, the activity must cease without compensation.
A physical taking occurs when the government actually takes and occupies private land for what is indisputably a public purpose, such a building a public building or establishing a public road or utility easement. When the government physically takes real property, the landowner is entitled to just compensation.
A regulatory taking occurs when the government does not physically take private real property, but places an excessive amount of restrictions on the use of the property. The concept is derived rom a 1922 Supreme Court decision, Pennsylvania Coal Co v. Mahon, which held that all regulation affects the value of property to some extent, and “if regulation goes too far, it will be recognized as a taking.”
Abatement is the legal process by which a public entity removes nuisances and code violations. Public entities do not have to pay compensation for the abatement of a nuisance or a violation of the local code.
A variance is a local land use decision allowing a use that is not strictly in compliance with the local zoning or building regulations. California has a strict rule for variances. The city or county must find that, because of unique conditions of the property in question, the strict application of zoning ordinances deprives the owner of privilege enjoyed by other property owners in the vicinity.
How to Find the Zoning Designation For a Property
Because zoning ordinances are community specific, it is important to contact your local Department of Regional Planning if you have questions regarding the zoning of a particular area or parcel. Regional Planning Departments often have their own website with general information regarding zoning and land use, and some websites also allow you to check the designation related to a particular address or assessor’s parcel number (APN).
I remember seeing an entire class on zoning law, and in that moment I knew that I would never know as much as I should about it and what goes into it. There are wide ranging implications for what seem like little decisions.