Q: What is zoning?
A: Zoning is the process by which political subdivisions (cities, villages, townships and counties) regulate land use by dividing themselves into districts or “zones” and enacting regulations to control the buildings and uses within each district. Zoning generally consists of a code and a map. There are two primary purposes for zoning: 1) to facilitate planning and land development on a community-wide basis; and 2) to reduce disputes between landowners by keeping conflicting land uses separate. Zoning legislation regulates uses of land. It typically regulates such things as the size of lots and buildings, the minimum front, back and side yard requirements, and the minimum number of parking spaces required for certain types of buildings, depending on the use. By ensuring predictability in land use, zoning helps maintain property value.
Q: What authority do political subdivisions have to enact zoning regulations?
A: Zoning regulations are created through legislative action of the state legislature that, in turn, allows the legislative authority of each political subdivision in the state to create regulations to promote the health, safety, aesthetics and general welfare of the community. In the 1920s, property owners challenged the right of cities to restrict the use of their land through zoning regulations. However, the Supreme Court of the United States, recognizing that zoning could serve a valid public purpose, upheld comprehensive zoning, as long as it is reasonably applied. While property owners continue to challenge the application of particular zoning restrictions on a case-by-case basis, the Court has maintained political subdivisions’ authority to enact zoning regulations and has even expanded the list of circumstances under which subdivisions can make zoning regulations.
Q: How are zoning regulations enacted?
A: The local legislative authority may enact legislation under the authority given by the state. Typically, the local legislature of the political subdivision will appoint a planning commission to review land use within the political subdivision. The planning commission will usually propose a “comprehensive land use plan,” which serves as a guide for dividing the political subdivision into districts or zones as well as more detailed elements of community development. Several states have moved in recent years to require comprehensive planning in order to enact zoning. Generally speaking, zoning districts and regulations help implement comprehensive plans. The most common types of districts are residential, commercial and industrial. These districts may be further divided. For example, a residential district may be further divided to provide for single-family and multi-family zones or small and large lots. There are districts that allow mixing uses in certain ways as well, which are becoming more popular. While these allow for some mixing of uses, they focus on high-quality design, context-specific applications, and ensuring proper transitions and relationships of uses within a project and with surrounding sites.
A comprehensive plan may help justify the appropriateness of the zoning regulations. The local legislature, whether a city or village council, board of township trustees or board of county commissioners, is responsible for enacting the plan and the zoning regulations that define each zone. Because comprehensive plans and zoning regulations provide a blueprint for future growth and development, they should be periodically updated to reflect changes in the community.
Q: How are zoning regulations enforced?
A: Violation of a zoning regulation is typically a civil rather than a criminal matter. Zoning inspectors may issue orders to stop a violation of the zoning regulation. That might be followed by a court action resulting in a fine. Some communities have enacted administrative ticketing and hearing processes to provide a quicker method of enforcement without burdening court systems. Fines often continue during the time that the violation remains uncorrected.
Q: What can a property owner do when faced with an unreasonable zoning regulation?
A: Because properties have different sizes, shapes and topographies, current zoning regulations applied to a specific property may create an unreasonable result for the property owner and the city. For example, a residential lot in an urban city might be too small, under current zoning regulations, for a house to be built. One way to resolve this issue is to grant a “variance.”
A board of zoning appeals, appointed by the legislative body, hears and acts upon requests for variances from the zoning regulations. If a board agrees that applying a zoning regulation to a specific property results in a practical difficulty to a property owner, it will grant a variance, perhaps with additional conditions and safeguards. Generally, a board of zoning appeals will try to grant the minimum variance necessary to resolve the conflict.
A variance may permit a property owner to develop a property with, for example, narrower yard setbacks, smaller lot size, larger building size or fewer parking spaces than those permitted in the zoning district in which the property is located. In order to grant a variance, the board of zoning appeals must apply standards that are incorporated into the zoning regulations.
In addition, most codes provide some relief for pre-existing non-conforming situations.
This "Law You Can Use" consumer legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was originally prepared by Daniel B. Bennington, former Delaware City Attorney, and updated by Darren Shulman, current Delaware City Attorney.