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The Basics of Land Use and Zoning Law

August 26, 2021
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You’re hoping to build a home. Your client is looking to buy property on which she’ll open a new business. Your friend’s industrial manufacturing company is growing and needs a larger physical space.

Welcome to land use and zoning law: the regulation that determines how landowners can use their land. Explore some fundamentals of this powerful tool and consider how its use can affect the environment.

Regulation of Land Use

Land-use regulation is an umbrella term for rules that govern land development. They control the development of private land through use, density, design, and historic preservation requirements.1

The regulation of land use is common practice in most cities of the world. It includes:2

  • Zoning, by which land use is restricted
  • Lot size regulation, which restricts the size of each housing lot
  • Urban growth boundary control, which separates urban development areas from urbanization-control areas
  • Floor area ratio regulation, which restricts building sizes

In regard to land-use restrictions and zoning law, the U.S. constitution grants limited powers to the federal government. The authority to create and enact these laws in this country comes from the police powers left to each state, most of which delegate it to local governments.3 The local authorities, in turn, impose the rules and enforce compliance through approval processes overseen by planning commissions or local government administrators.1

Zoning Laws

In 1916, the shop merchants in New York City’s Fifth Avenue Association expressed their worries about congestion and declining land values affecting their profits. In response, the city introduced zoning as a legal tool.4 It was this country’s first use of zoning. Since then, nearly every major urban area in the United States has enacted zoning regulations,1 which are intended to keep incompatible property uses separate from each other. Consider, for example, whether you’d like a smoke-emitting factory to open near the home where you live and raise children. Zoning laws—the most common form of land-use regulation—help prevent that.

Exceptions to zoning rules are known as variances. They’re usually granted to ease a perceived hardship caused by the nature of a specific property or to satisfy a unique need that’s not detrimental to the public interest. The factory that’s barred from opening in a residential zone, for instance, might obtain a variance allowing for a home, within an industrial zone, for the night watchman in its employ.

Urban areas typically comprise five large zoning categories:6

An area of single-family or multifamily dwellings wherein businesses may or may not be located. The zone includes multiple-unit dwellings, high-rise apartment districts and redevelopment districts.7

As the name suggests, this zone is specifically set aside for commercial businesses. It may be subdivided into areas for small retail, large retail, offices, lodging and other uses.6

Mixed Residential-Commercial
Also called Mixed-Use, this zoning allows a complementary mix of residential, commercial and/or industrial uses in a single district. It’s often subdivided into three types:

  • Vertical mixed-use allows for a combination of different uses in the same building; the non-residential uses usually occupy the bottom portion of the building, with the residential on top8
  • Horizontal mixed-use allows distinct uses on separate parcels to be combined in a particular area or district, which helps avoid the complexities of combining uses with different safety or regulatory requirements in a single building8
  • Mixed-use walkable combines vertical mixed-use and horizontal mixed-use, creating an area of mixed-use buildings and distinct single-use buildings near each other8

This area is established as being most appropriate for industry or manufacturing. Businesses here specialize in the manufacture of industrial products and the provision of services for industrial manufacture.9 This zone may be subdivided into areas for heavy manufacturing, light assembly and warehouses.6

This category includes properties outside of those already discussed here, such as power plants, sports complexes, airports and shopping malls.6

Governance Within Zones

In addition to regulating property locations, zoning law sets parameters for several considerations within each zone. They include:5

  • Requirements regarding the type of buildings allowed
  • Building size and height
  • The number of rooms within buildings
  • Location of utility lines
  • Restrictions on accessory buildings, building setbacks from the streets and other boundaries

Further, zoning restrictions may govern the frontage of lots; minimum lot size; front, rear, and side yards; off-street parking; the number of buildings on a lot; and the number of dwelling units in a certain area.

Zoning and Environmental Justice

The initial use of zoning in the United States largely involved keeping people with low incomes, regarded as being of low social status, out of certain areas. Since then, authorities have continued to use zoning to restrict particular people to particular parts of a city.4

Today, industrial polluters such as fossil fuel storage and transportation sites and hazardous waste facilities are disproportionately located in communities of color and low-income communities. Fortunately, several cities are working to change that through policies that promote environmental justice: 4

  • Six cities—Portland, Oregon; Oakland, California; Seattle and Whatcom County, Washington; Baltimore and Chicago—have prohibited certain land uses and industries determined to be harmful to public health and the environment
  • Between 2000 and 2019, San Francisco earmarked more than $12 million in grants for local community projects serving environmental justice areas, and allocated resources to address health inequities, air quality, and renewable and efficient energy
  • In 2010, Fulton County, Georgia launched an environmental justice initiative that resulted in policies requiring consideration of the health impact on minority and low-income populations in decisions about land-use planning and zoning
  • In 2017, New York City adopted policies that required a study of environmental justice areas and established an interagency group to create an environmental justice plan
  • Also in 2017, Minneapolis put forth a city council resolution aimed at green zones, where the city applies stricter development standards for new construction and works to reduce negative health impacts, in order to improve health and promote sustainable economic development
  • In 2018, environmental justice advocates, including local neighborhood groups and national environmental groups with local chapters, successfully pushed for a ban on new crude oil terminals in Baltimore

Use your legal expertise to safeguard people and the environment.

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1. Retrieved on August 9, 2021 from cato.org/policy-analysis/zoning-land-use-planning-housing-affordability
2. Retrieved on August 9, 2021 from sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/land-use-regulation
3. Retrieved on August 9, 2021 from legalcareerpath.com/land-use-zoning-law/
4. Retrieved on August 9, 2021 from psmag.com/environment/how-to-use-zoning-laws-to-promote-environmental-justice
5. Retrieved on August 9, 2021 from findlaw.com/realestate/land-use-laws/land-use-and-zoning-basics.html
6. Retrieved on August 9, 2021 from hg.org/land-use-and-zoning.html
7. Retrieved on August 9, 2021 from lawinsider.com/dictionary/residential-zone
8. ​​Retrieved on August 9, 2021 from sustainablecitycode.org/brief/mixed-use-zoning/
9. Retrieved on August 9, 2021 from lawinsider.com/dictionary/industrial-zone