Land Use and Zoning

Land use and zoning laws affect builders, developers, and property owners. They outline how land can be used and place restrictions on building types and uses. Not everyone agrees with all zoning laws and may bring legal challenges.

What is Land Use and Zoning?

Land use describes how a piece of land is used and developed. For instance, a parcel of land may be developed into residential apartments and another into an industrial center. Zoning is how land use is regulated.[1][2]

Most cities have zoning regulations that determine how land can be used and developed:

  • Residential. Residential zoning restricts land to real estate development of homes. This can include single-family homes, condominiums, apartments, or other types of buildings for people to live in rather than for business use.
  • Commercial. In commercial zones, developers can construct buildings for businesses. Office buildings, restaurants, and retail stores are examples of commercial construction.
  • Mixed Residential-Commercial. Combining residential buildings with businesses is not unusual. It provides convenience for residents and more opportunities for businesses to attract local customers.
  • Industrial. An industrial zone includes buildings for industrial businesses. This includes factories, manufacturing facilities, and plants.
  • Special. Some uses don’t fit neatly into the above categories. Land may be zones as special for things like sports stadiums or airports.

Within each of the three zone types, many cities include further regulations. For instance, a residential zone may be limited to single-family homes or apartment buildings, no more than five stories tall. Zoning laws may also include restrictions to protect historic areas or buildings. Other details included in zoning are:

  • Building types
  • Building size
  • Utility lines
  • The number of rooms in buildings
  • Accessory buildings
  • Setbacks from the street
  • Lot size

What is the Purpose of Land Use and Zoning?

A lawsuit from the 1920s went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, gave cities the authority to establish land use and zoning laws, and outlined the purpose of regulations. The case originated in Euclid, Ohio, near Cleveland.

A company called Ambler Realty owned 68 acres in Euclid. The city’s government feared the company would develop the property industrially, to the detriment of residents. It restricted the use of the land, and Ambler sued. They claimed the restriction reduced the value of the property.[3]

The Supreme Court found in favor of Euclid. It set a precedent for cities zoning land for specific uses. The Court found that the city government could zone land for the betterment of the community. Now, almost all cities zone to make their communities more livable and to maintain character.[3]

Land Use and Zoning Affects Future Development

Zoning laws affect what you can do on a piece of property and with buildings that already exist. They also impact the future development of a city. Many municipalities plan for the future by creating an urban plan with zoning laws. Local ordinances regulate what developers can and cannot do in certain zones.

Anyone involved in development or construction and real estate must follow local zoning regulations. They may also have to follow regional or state ordinances. The purpose is to create livable cities with room for residences, industry, businesses, parks, utilities, recreation, and more.

Limits on Zoning

Cities impose zoning regulations to determine how land will be used, but they do not have unlimited power to do so. Local governments must create zoning and land-use rules that are reasonable and not arbitrary. They must take into consideration the benefits to the community.

Challenging Land Use and Zoning Regulations

The imposition of zoning and land use laws causes some controversy with residents and business owners. Property owners may feel unfair zoning laws restrict their rights. Zoning is supposed to be reasonable, but people do not always agree on what that means. Some elements of zoning not generally allowed and that may be challenged include:

  • Land use restrictions based on race or religion
  • Restricting the type of person who occupies a parcel of land
  • Spot zoning individual parcels within a property to benefit the owner

Individuals and property owners may challenge zoning laws for several other reasons. Many of these are insufficient to give the challenger standing in attempting to change the zoning, but sometimes they succeed. Challengers generally point to factors that will negatively affect their property:

  • Increases in nearby traffic
  • Increases in crime or noise
  • Risk of flooding
  • Reducing property values
  • Destruction of historic character
  • Environmental harm

Zoning appeals boards take these challenges from residents, business owners, and developers. They conduct hearings and listen to witness and expert testimony to determine if zoning laws should be changed or if exceptions apply in certain situations. Zoning laws can be complicated, so most individuals rely on a lawyer to represent them in hearings.

Land use and zoning laws are supposed to help community members by creating a livable city plan. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees on how to do that. Challenges occur all the time, and lawyers get involved in these. If you have a zoning challenge or complaint, let a land use and zoning lawyer provide advice and represent you in any legal action.

  1. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Land Use.
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  2. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). Zoning.
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  3. Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. (1926). VILLAGE OF EUCLID, OHIO, et al. v. AMBLER REALTY CO.
    Retrieved from: