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Zoning Overview and Definitions

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Learn everything you need to know about Zoning.

What is Zoning? 

Zoning refers to municipal code or local laws and requirements that govern how pieces of land can or can not be developed and what use of land the developed area can serve. Municipalities create zoning regulations and classifications that dictate what type of properties can co-exist in a particular area to maintain the community's health and public safety.

The municipality's planning commission (and/or zoning board) helps create and optimize the structure of a city's land development needs and land development standards. When making zoning decisions, the commission often consults the city's master plan, which is a comprehensive document laying out a particular municipality's current and future needs and goals. A master plan will consider a community's transportation needs, economy, obstacles, and challenges. It will also include the people, homes, parks, and businesses that make up that community. Once a master plan is in place, a zoning ordinance can be created that draws on the goals and needs outlined in the master plan. A zoning ordinance helps put the city's plans into action. It also lists the regulations and laws that will govern how the land can be used, land development standards for that zone, and maps the exact boundaries of the area's zones.

Zoning and land use can be tricky spaces to navigate. Since zoning laws affect what can be done to a parcel of land and can be different from city to city, land developers doing business anywhere need to be familiar with local zoning laws.

How is Zoning Enforced? 

Zoning laws, or zoning regulations, are enforced by local authorities, rather than state or federal entities. Violators of zoning ordinances can be ticketed, fined, appear before the courts, and in extreme cases end up in jail.

Zoning District Definition

The designated region is assigned to the same governing zoning board and zoning regulations.


Zoning Examples and Classifications: What is a Zoning Code? 

Zoning codes are land use regulations that define what is allowed to be built and where it can be built. Municipalities use zoning codes to separate land under their jurisdictions into zones of allowable development. In some cases, a municipality will publish a zoning map. Three factors typically determine these zones:

  1. The use or activity taking place on the ground or buildings built there

  2. The shape of buildings, i.e., height and relationship to the adjacent public right of way

  3. Lot size and the bulk or the size of a building and how it orients on the property 

Zoning classifications include the following categories:

Residential Zoning Definitions

Residential zoning permits building single-family residences, suburban homesteads, and other designations like houses, apartments, co-ops, and condos. Residential zoning laws address whether a mobile home can be placed on a property and how many structures can be built on the property. A residential zone limits what kind of animals and how many of them are allowed at a residence based on the property's size (domestic pets are not generally being regulated). Farm animals are often not allowed in a residential district.

Commercial Zoning

Commercial zoning has multiple categories depending on how the business plans to use the property and the number of customers it intends to service. Besides single-family lots and homes, most real estate properties are classified as commercial zones. Some examples of a commercial district are shopping centers, hotels, specific types of warehouses, office buildings, nightclubs, and vacant land that can be used for these types of businesses.

Industrial Zoning

Industrial zoning laws are typically specific to businesses that operate in light, medium-scale, and heavy industries that require structures such as factories, manufacturing facilities, research institutes, and waste processing.

Agricultural Zoning

Agricultural zoning allows for farming, the construction of silos, and structures to house animals and vehicles. The density of land development will be low as most of the land is used for pasture and the production of crops.

Mixed-Use Zoning

Mixed-use zoning provides for multiple uses in a single district that has been deemed compatible with each other. The types of land use considered compatible will depend on what a municipality has decided is acceptable. Mixed-use zoning examples are downtown buildings with residential units in their upper stories and retail on the ground floor.

Open Space Zoning 

Open space zoning is usually included in a community's zoning ordinance to protect undeveloped land. Open space zones provide and protect property like parks, playgrounds, and vacant lots.

Historic Zoning

Historic zoning is a zoning overlay added to the base zoning of a specific tract of land. Regulations in historic zones typically prevent changes to the original structures other than restorations and repairs within the historical plan.

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What is a Zone Variance?

Granted by the Board of Zoning Appeals, a zone variance relieves landowners who would face unnecessary hardships in using a property in full compliance with the zoning ordinance. A zone variance is not a change to zoning laws but rather a specific waiver of requirements. A zone variance is usually granted to land developers if some peculiar property characteristics differentiate it from adjacent properties and thus prevent the land developer from enjoying the same use of their property that adjacent property owners enjoy.

Rezoning: How to Change a Zoning of Land 

Rezoning is the act of changing a land's use classification to a different classification with regulations permitting the applicant's desired use. Rezoning might be allowed where one of the following objectives (or similar ones) is no longer being met by the current use classification, and the proposed use classification would further one or more of these goals:

  •  It protects all properties from potentially negative consequences of neighboring, incompatible uses.

  •  It protects the value of properties by permitting them the most appropriate land uses and minimizing the potentially   negative impact of nearby uses.

  •  It controls the location and negative impacts of nuisance-like uses.

  •  It provides adequate public services (i.e., transportation, water, and sewers).

The process of how rezoning is handled will vary as it depends on the municipality. Typically, a municipality's planning commission will consider the proposed changes while determining whether those changes are in the community's best interest. The planning commission gathers pertinent information and holds public hearings to allow those that could be affected in the community to explain why they approve or disapprove. The city council or other governing body will review all the available information and testimonies to decide whether to approve or reject the change.

Rezoning can be expensive, complicated, and time-consuming. Keep the following in mind when considering a zoning change:

Rezoning Fees

There is an initial fee for applying to start the rezoning process. This fee varies as it depends on the municipality in which the rezoning is being requested. While application fees are required, there is no guarantee that the rezoning application will be approved.

Rezoning Reason

Officials will want to know the detailed reason for the proposed change of the zoning assignment for a property. The stated reason can have significant effect in an attempt to rezone property, and officials take into account the current state of the area as well as future plans.

Impact on Surrounding Land

The impact of the proposed rezoning plans on the surrounding area is always considered. If the proposed rezoning could harm nearby properties or create safety hazards, the rezoning application is likely to be denied.

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Zoning Definitions


Accessory Dwelling Unit

An accessory dwelling unit is a smaller, independent residential dwelling unit located on the same lot as a stand-alone single-family home. This regulation exists in residential areas, primarily applying to homeowners.

Accessory Uses

Accessory uses are land uses found on the same parcel as the principal use and are subordinate, customary, and incidental to the principal use.

Air Rights

Air rights are the rights to build a structure that occupies the vertical space above a property.

Board of Zoning Appeals

The Board of Zoning Appeals is a local government body that grants relief from the zoning ordinance requirements. They hear from property owners and other interested parties potentially affected by such relief.

Buffer Zones

Buffer zones are required by a governing body to reduce permitting conflicts between two adjacent districts that have incompatible uses. These zones are frequently utilized when a proposed single-family district is adjacent to a developing multi-family complex. Usually, these areas will include trees, grass, park areas, or berming.

Bulk Regulations

Bulk regulations control the size and layout of structures, including open space, lot lines, maximum building height, and maximum floor area ratio.

Comprehensive Plan

A comprehensive plan is a document designed to present a vision for the community's future, with long-range goals and objectives for all activities that affect the local government. It helps plan infrastructure development, protect natural resources, plan for aesthetics, and guide future zoning changes.

Conditional Use Permit

A conditional use permit is a zoning exception that allows landowners to use land in a way not typically permitted within the particular zoning district.


Density is the amount of land per acre that allows development and is quantified in residential areas by the number of dwelling units per acre or for commercial areas, by calculating the ratio of the floor area.


Down-zoning refers to when the local government rezones a property or multiple properties to a more restrictive zoning district; an example would be a commercial shopping district that allows only single-family housing.


An easement is a legal situation where the landowner's title to a specific piece of land remains. Still, another person or organization is given the right to use that land for a distinct purpose.


An exaction is a condition on a portion of land, infrastructure, or fees that the local government requires from a land developer in return for subdivision or development approval. An example would be the municipality requiring a developer to set a portion of his land aside as a designated park to exchange for approval.

Impact Fees

Impact fees are money requested by the local government from developers for off-site improvements made necessary due to the developer's project.

Floating Zones

A floating zone is a zoning district that delineates conditions that must be met before that zoning district can be approved for an existing piece of land.

Floor Area Ratio

The floor area ratio is the relationship between the total amount of usable floor area that a building has or has been permitted to have and the total area of the lot on which the building stands used by local governments for zoning codes.

Form-Based Codes

A form-based code is a land development regulation that controls design elements, including size, style, and placement.

Lot Coverage

Lot coverage is the percent of the total lot covered by buildings and impervious surfaces.

Non-Conforming Uses

​​A non-conforming use is a type of vested right where the use of property initially allowed under the zoning ordinance when it was established is no longer a permitted use following subsequent changes to the ordinance.

Overlay Zoning

Overlay zoning, or an overlay district, is a regulatory tool that creates a particular zoning district over an existing base zone(s), which identifies special provisions in addition to those in the underlying base zone.

Parking Minimums

Parking minimums are local laws that require private businesses and residences to provide at least a certain number of off-street parking spaces.

Planned Unit Development

A planned unit development is a development that is not subject to standard "by right" zoning but is allowed greater flexibility by the local government.


A proffer, also known as conditional zoning, refers to where a landowner will voluntarily agree to limit the use of property or otherwise perform an action to obtain specific land use permits or authorizations.

Regulatory Taking

Regulatory taking is an expression of the power of eminent domain by the government to acquire and make public use or benefit of once privately owned property ownership. Though the government retains this power, for the action to be considered lawful they must pay for the obtained land. This type of land acquisition occurs when governance imposes legal requirements that take all financially logical use or value of a property from the landowner. Though the actual title to the property doesn’t go to the government because the rules set in place make it essentially worthless, it still requires compensation to the landowner as is considered a regulatory taking.


A setback is a minimum distance from the property lines where a structure must be located.

Spot Zoning

Spot zoning occurs when the zoning classification of a single parcel of land for a use classification is different from the surrounding zoning district.

Temporary Use

Temporary use permits a specific period of use for a property, given that the action follows the regulated guidelines of use.


Up-zoning is the opposite of down-zoning and is when the local government rezones to allow for more permitted uses. A typical example is when municipalities rezone an area for single-family housing to allow for multi-family housing.


A variance may be granted by the Board of Zoning Appeals to give relief to the landowner, who, due to unique conditions, would face an unnecessary hardship in using the property in full compliance with the zoning ordinance. A zoning variance is a request for zoning adjustment or exception.

Vested Rights 

Vested rights refer to when a landowner has obtained government approval for the development of a project and has relied in good faith on that approval, so they can continue with the development if a change in the zoning ordinance suddenly impacts it.

Free Permitting Checklist

Practical Tips to Avoid Environmental Risk on all Your Projects

Download our environmental permitting checklist to get a step-by-step list of ways to protect your project from the 9 most common environmental risks.

Download Your Checklist