What Is a Zoning Ordinance?

A zoning ordinance is a rule that defines how property in specific geographic zones can be used. Zoning ordinances detail whether specific geographic zones are acceptable for residential or commercial purposes. Zoning ordinances may also regulate lot size, placement, density, and the height of structures. Zoning ordinances also describe the procedures for how to handle any zoning rule infractions (including any penalties).

Key Takeaways

  • A zoning ordinance is a rule that defines how property in specific geographic zones can be used.
  • Zoning ordinances may also regulate lot size, placement, density, and the height of structures.
  • Zoning rules vary greatly by region, but their most general, shared purpose is to separate residential property use from commercial property use.

How a Zoning Ordinance Works

The process of zoning consists of dividing a particular region of land into districts or zones, and then specifying the types of land uses that are allowed and prohibited for each zone. This is generally performed by a municipal corporation or county. Zoning rules vary greatly by region, but their most general, shared purpose is to separate residential property use from commercial property use.

Municipal governments can institute highly specific zoning ordinances to influence the nature of a district or neighborhood in its municipality. For example, by designating several neighboring sections of a city strictly for residential use, residents of that region will experience less traffic and noise pollution in their environment. Zoning ordinances are also used to preserve the architectural integrity of the buildings in a specific area. If a municipality wishes to maintain the historic appearance of a part of town, zoning ordinances can be used to limit real estate construction there so that all new buildings must be of comparable height and square footage as the historic buildings.

Special Considerations

Changes to zoning ordinances can create tension amongst current and prospective residents and also landlords of property in the zoned region. For example, this may be the case if a new business plans to move to a specific city, only to discover that the zoning rules have changed in the geographic region of the property they intended to occupy.

As a result of new zoning ordinances, commercial properties may be forced to switch to residential properties and vice-versa. In some instances, existing tenants may be forced to relocate because of these changes. However, zoning ordinances sometimes contain grandfather clauses. Grandfather clauses exempt existing tenants from being impacted by any changes to the current zoning rules (provided they were already residing in the zone by a specified date).

There are certain exceptions that allow properties that do not meet the requirements of a zoning ordinance to still be established in those respective geographic zones. If an ordinance changes a zone that once allowed commercial businesses to operate to a residential-only zone, some small, local businesses may be allowed to stay open because of a grandfather clause.

New businesses also have the option of applying for a variance. A variance is a request to deviate from current zoning rules. If the variance is approved, the new tenant can move in and operate regardless of the zoning ordinance.