A zoning ordinance is a written regulation and law that defines how property in specific geographic zones can be used. Zoning ordinances specify whether zones can be used for residential or commercial purposes, and may also regulate lot size, placement, bulk (or density) and the height of structures. Zoning ordinances are lengthy documents describing not only the acceptable use for specified areas of land but also the procedures for handling infractions (including any penalties), granting variances and hearing appeals.

Breaking Down a Zoning Ordinance

Zoning consists of dividing a particular region of land into districts or zones and specifying the types of land uses that are allowed and prohibited for each zone. This is performed by a municipal corporation or county and is typically specific to certain city regions. Zoning, in its basic form, attempts to separate residential property use from commercial property use.

Zoning ordinances give municipalities the ability to tailor the nature of their neighborhoods. Sections of a town zoned strictly for residential use not only create space for citizens to live but can also limit heavy traffic and noise pollution in that part of town. Municipal governments can institute highly specific zoning ordinances often to control the nature of a district or neighborhood. For example, zoning ordinances could be used to preserve an aesthetic for all the buildings in the area. If the municipality wishes to maintain a historic part of town, zoning ordinances could limit real estate there to buildings of comparable height and square footage as the historic buildings.

How Zoning Ordinances Affect Current and Future Occupants of a Property

Changes to zoning ordinances can create tension with prospective tenants and landlords of properties. This can particularly be the case if a new business plans to move into a town, only to discover that the zoning has changed on the property they intended to occupy. Commercial properties can switch to residential and vice-versa because of zoning ordinances. In some instances, existing tenants could be forced to relocate because of the changes. A zoning ordinance could contain grandfather clauses that exempt existing tenants that were already present in the zone by a certain date.

There are options for properties that do not match a zoning ordinance to still be established in the respective neighborhoods. An ordinance might change a zone that once allowed commercial businesses to operate to residential-only. Some small, local businesses might be grandfathered in and allowed to stay open. New businesses could apply for a variance and try to prove that their presence will not adversely affect the area. If the variance is approved, the new tenant can move in and operate regardless of zoning ordinance.