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Practice Definitions - Land Use & Zoning
Land Use & Zoning
Land Use and Zoning Law involves the regulation of the use and development of real estate. The most common form of land-use regulation is zoning. Zoning regulations and restrictions are used by municipalities to control and direct the development of property within their borders. Other legal issues related to land use include easements and eminent domain. An easement is a property interest that allows the holder of the easement to use property that he or she does not own or possess. Eminent domain (or condemnation) is the government's power to take private land for public use (while compensating the landowner).

Land Use & Zoning Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do zoning codes affect my property rights?

A: To avoid urban mishmash, municipalities often restrict business and industry to particular designated areas. Other areas are zoned residential, including apartment buildings, or zoned strictly for single-family homes. If your neighborhood is zoned residential, you won't have to worry about a pool hall or gas station going up next to your house, but it also means that there are certain restrictions on what you can do with your property.

Zoning laws vary among communities. While some municipalities mandate few if any zoning restrictions, others enforce very strict zoning laws, controlling such items as the maximum size of a dog house and the height of a fence. If you are planning to build any sort of addition or new structure, check with your local building department about zoning restrictions on your property. If you are still unsure, consult a lawyer.

Q: Is there a way to avoid zoning restrictions?

A: Most communities allow you to apply for a variance if you wish to make a minor change to your property that would violate zoning restrictions. Essentially, a variance is permission from the governing body to deviate from the zoning laws. The zoning department can provide materials explaining how to seek a variance. The steps may involve a public hearing, an appearance before the planning commission, and approval by the town governing board. It is up to you to show that the proposed change is required by a hardship caused by the shape, condition, or location of your property, and will not alter the character of the neighborhood or reduce neighboring property values.

If your plans call for a major change, you may apply for a zoning change. For example, if you live near the boundary of an area zoned commercial and you want to turn your 19th-century house into a doctor's office, you might be able to persuade the zoning authorities to extend the boundaries a bit. Again, you would have to show that the change would not hurt property values and convince your neighbors that it would not diminish their property rights.

Q: Can zoning codes prohibit me from running a business in my home?

A: A typical residential zoning law probably would not preclude you from operating a home-based business that would not alter the character of the neighborhood, such as telephone sales, freelance writing, or mail-order distribution. But if the home-based business will require signs and frequent traffic from customers, check with the local department of building and zoning before making any kind of investment. Also, be sure to ask about anything you must do to license your business.
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