Zoning Definition


Zoning was originally created to design uniform neighborhoods, control traffic patterns, and—when done right—allow room for a city to grow. Zoning implementation had several unintended consequences and unfortunately contributed to increased income inequality and racial wealth disparities. With modern times, zoning practices will have to adapt to growing populations and needs. Zoning refers to local regulations that govern land use in specific areas. It’s a tool used by municipalities to control development, manage resources, and promote economic growth.

Understanding zoning laws

Zoning laws are rules set by local governments that decide how specific pieces of land can be used in different parts of a town or city. Think of zoning laws as a way to create a plan for the city, like deciding where homes, stores, factories, and parks should be located.

For instance, imagine a neighborhood with cozy houses where families live. Zoning laws could be in place to make sure that a big noisy factory isn’t built right next to these houses. This helps keep the neighborhood peaceful and quiet. Similarly, zoning laws might prevent a restaurant from being built in the middle of a park, making sure that the park stays a nice place for people to enjoy nature.

These laws help create a balance in the city so that different areas serve their purposes well. Zoning can be compared to dividing a cake into slices – each slice is different and has its own flavor.

But sometimes, a special occasion comes up, and you want a bigger slice of cake. In a similar way, if a community has a good reason, they can ask to change the zoning laws temporarily. For example, if the community needs a new hospital, the zoning laws can be adjusted to allow for its construction even if it’s not exactly what the rules say.

Overall, zoning laws are like a map that guides how a city grows and changes. They’re there to make sure everyone has a nice place to live, work, and play.

How zoning works

Zoning outlines what types of developmental and operational use of land is allowed on a given tract. Municipalities tend to partition districts and neighborhoods according to a master plan. This may be done to promote economic development, control traffic flow, manage noise levels, reserve living space for residents, and protect certain resources.

Examples of zoning classifications include industrial, light industrial, commercial, light commercial, agricultural, single-family residential, multiunit residential, and schools. Local government might ban the use of residential property for business purposes to keep commercial activity confined to specific parts of town. Such zoning can lead to conflicts if residents dispute the designated usage.

Zoning laws can also regulate the details of construction in specific neighborhoods. For example, zoning can limit the maximum height of buildings in a given area regardless of the type of construction allowed. High-rise residences or offices could be banned on particular parcels through zoning regardless of whether the buildings otherwise comply with the laws. The presence of zoning restrictions can influence prices when purchasing a piece of property. Real estate might sell at a premium based on how many limits were put in place by the municipality.

In 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that properly drawn zoning ordinances were a valid exercise of states’ governing power. Zoning became constitutional by the court as a result of the case of Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty.

The economic theory of zoning

According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase’s Theorem, in the absence of transaction costs, questions and disputes over land use and development could be solved optimally without government regulation. Under the assumptions of Coase’s Theorem, how a given piece of land should be used and what type of activities should be permitted could simply be negotiated among the parties involved to achieve an economically efficient outcome.

Coase’s Theorem illustrates why, in the real world—where transaction costs do occur and frictionless bargaining among stakeholders is unlikely—land use regulations such as zoning and other government-imposed solutions are the norm.

Critiques of zoning law

There are varied critiques of traditional zoning implementation.
Some critics claim that zoning creates and widens the disparity of quality of life among socioeconomic groups. For example, a township might maintain zoning laws that restrict heavy industrial and commercial development to tracts of land adjacent to lower-income neighborhoods. The effects of such policies would let more affluent parts of town avoid the associated noise and pollution.

Areas that continue to be zoned for low-density residential neighborhoods with a housing shortage are contributing to homelessness in their area by refusing to allow more residential housing units to be built.

A more modern critique of zoning that segregates commercial and residential areas is that it makes residents dependent on cars. A more integrated, walkable neighborhood where people could get groceries, work, and recreate close to their homes would allow them to forgo the environmental and financial costs of car ownership. If zoning allowed for walkable neighborhoods, less space would have to be devoted to roads and more space could be reserved for housing and green space.

Special considerations

Alterations to zoning laws are possible even without full repeals of the current legislation. A developer or property owner can apply for variances that would allow certain exceptions to zoning regulations. This would let property be used in ways generally not permitted—for example, the owner of a home-based business might request a variance to allow the operations to continue.

Applicants for variances might be required to explain why the variance is needed and how the change will not cause significant disruption or detriment to the surrounding community.

Frequently asked questions about zoning

Who controls zoning?

There is no federal agency for zoning, so who controls the zoning in your area depends almost entirely on where you live. It is controlled at the county level in some cases, at the city level in others. Sometimes zoning is decided by a zoning office, and sometimes it is controlled by a land use office.

How can you get the zoning changed on something?

First, you’ll have to figure out who controls the zoning in your area. Then they usually will have a process by which you can appeal the zoning on something, but the specific steps will vary depending on where you live. Getting advice from a local real estate lawyer is advisable.

Can zoning laws stop me from building on my property?

Yes. You may own the land on which you want to build, but you still will have to abide by zoning laws that may say you can’t build a building of a certain size, or for a certain purpose, or any number of other regulations.

Key takeaways

  • Zoning governs land use based on location and type.
  • Categories include residential, commercial, agricultural, and more.
  • Zoning’s effects on property prices can be significant.
  • Ronald Coase’s Theorem highlights the role of zoning.
  • Zoning can lead to disparities and car dependency.
  • Consulting a real estate lawyer is advised for zoning changes.
View article sources
  1. What Is Zoning?y – New York City Planning
  2. Zoning, equity, and public health – PubMed
  3. Land Use and Zoning – Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning
  4. Concepts in Real Estate – SuperMoney
  5. Buying Raw Land: How to Make a Profit – SuperMoney