Understanding Local Zoning Laws

What are zoning laws?

Zoning laws are local regulations that govern land use and development. They divide a city or town into different zones or districts and specify the allowed uses, building heights, setbacks, density, and other standards for each zone.

The purpose of zoning laws is to control and direct development in accordance with a comprehensive plan. Zoning aims to separate incompatible land uses, protect property values, manage growth, preserve open space and agricultural land, and promote orderly development.

The history of zoning laws in the United States began in the early 20th century as cities rapidly industrialized. New York City adopted the first comprehensive zoning code in 1916 to address congestion, overcrowding, light and air access issues. In 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. that zoning was a valid exercise of local police power. This landmark case paved the way for widespread adoption of zoning across the country. By the late 1920s, over 800 cities had implemented zoning codes.

Today, zoning is one of the primary tools used by local governments to regulate land use. All 50 states have enacted enabling legislation authorizing local municipalities to adopt zoning. While zoning laws vary by jurisdiction, they generally divide a locality into residential, commercial, industrial and other types of zones. Within each zone, the zoning ordinance specifies permitted uses and dimensional standards like height, setbacks, lot coverage and density. To further your education, make sure you read The Hidden Dangers of Real Estate Investing in Richmond, VA, which includes What is SquattingUnderstanding Eviction Laws in Richmond, VA, Partnering with a Property Management Company, and Working with an Experienced Real Estate Attorney. For more help, call the “Buy My House Fast in Richmond, VA” company.

Types of Zoning Districts

Zoning laws divide a city or town into different districts or zones. The regulations and permitted land uses differ in each zoning district. Some of the most common types of zoning districts include:

Residential Zoning

Residential zoning regulates land use in areas designated for houses, apartments, condominiums, and other dwelling units. Residential zones are categorized based on housing density. For example, R-1 may be single-family homes, R-2 allows duplexes, and R-3 permits small apartment buildings. Residential zones have requirements like minimum lot sizes, setbacks, height limits, and restrictions on commercial uses.

Commercial Zoning

Commercial zoning applies to retail stores, offices, restaurants, hotels, and other business uses. C-1 may be small neighborhood shops and services, while C-2 allows more intensive commercial uses like big box stores, car dealerships, and shopping centers. Commercial zones often abut major roads and highways. Parking, signs, noise, and operating hours may be regulated.

Industrial Zoning

Industrial zoning designates areas for factories, warehouses, manufacturing plants, junkyards, and other industrial operations. Noise, traffic, emissions, and other impacts are restricted to these zones. There are often buffers between industrial zones and residential areas. Subcategories like light and heavy industrial may exist.

Mixed-Use Zoning

Mixed-use zoning allows multiple compatible uses like commercial, residential, and sometimes light industrial or institutional. For example, the first floor could be retail stores, the second floor apartments, and upper floors offices. Mixed-use zones promote walkable urban development and can be found in city centers and around transit hubs.

Common zoning regulations

Zoning regulations control how land and buildings can be used in a given area. Some of the most common types of zoning regulations include:

Land use

Zoning specifies what types of uses are allowed on a given property, such as residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, etc. Zoning aims to separate incompatible land uses and preserve the character of neighborhoods. For example, industrial zones prohibit residential uses.


Zoning regulates the maximum number of dwelling units allowed per acre of land in residential zones. Higher density multifamily zones may permit apartments and condos, while lower density single family zones are limited to detached houses. Density limits can control population growth and preserve open space.

Height restrictions

Zoning often imposes maximum building heights to maintain consistent scale and prevent tall buildings from blocking light. Height limits typically range from 35 feet in single family zones to unlimited heights in some downtown centers. Tall buildings may require additional fire safety and zoning approval.

Parking requirements

Zoning specifies minimum numbers of off-street parking spaces businesses must provide, based on factors like building size and use. For example, retail stores may require 1 parking space per 300 square feet. Parking minimums ensure adequate parking but can lead to an oversupply.


Setback rules require buildings be set back a minimum distance from property lines and rights-of-way. For example, a 25-foot front setback requires a house be built at least 25 feet from the street. Setbacks aim to allow open space, access, and fire separation between buildings.

The Zoning Process

The zoning process typically involves several key steps:

Zoning Commission Review

Most municipalities have a zoning commission or zoning board that reviews and approves changes to zoning regulations and district maps. The zoning commission is responsible for holding public hearings and gathering feedback on proposed zoning changes before making a recommendation to the city council or other governing body. They review whether proposed changes align with the community’s comprehensive plan.

Public Hearings

Before a zoning change can occur, the zoning commission must hold public hearings to allow residents and stakeholders to voice their opinions. Hearings give citizens a chance to raise concerns, offer support, or request modifications to zoning proposals. Notice is published in advance to inform the public about the time, location, and topics to be discussed at hearings.

Approval Process

After the zoning commission holds their hearings, they will make a recommendation to the city council or other governing body, who gives final approval on zoning changes. If approved, the zoning map and regulations are updated accordingly. Minor variances may only require zoning board approval, while major changes to the zoning code or map require a vote by the elected governing body. Proposed zoning changes that are rejected cannot be submitted again for a certain period of time, often 12 months.

Obtaining a variance

A variance is an exception to the zoning rules that provide relief from certain restrictions such as allowable uses, setbacks, height limits, or lot sizes. Property owners may apply for a variance if they can demonstrate that their property meets specific criteria.

There are a few common reasons why a property owner may need to obtain a variance:

  • Unique physical characteristics of the property, such as an irregular shape or steep grade, that make complying with setbacks or other requirements exceptionally difficult.
  • Practical difficulties in developing the property for an allowed use without relief from standards.
  • Unnecessary hardship caused by the strict application of the zoning rules to that property.

To apply for a variance, the property owner must submit an application to the local zoning board, planning commission, or other designated body along with a fee. The application should explain precisely which zoning rules the applicant seeks relief from and justify the need for a variance.

The zoning board will evaluate the application based on established legal criteria. Key factors include:

  • The special conditions and circumstances unique to the property that prevent reasonable use under existing rules.
  • That a variance is necessary for the preservation and enjoyment of property rights possessed by other properties in the district.
  • That granting the variance will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood.
  • That the hardship is not self-created.

If the zoning board determines that the property meets these tests, they will approve the variance. Variances are tied specifically to the property and transfer along with ownership.

Nonconforming Uses

A nonconforming use is a property that doesn’t conform to current zoning laws but is allowed to continue because it lawfully existed before the zoning change. These properties are often called “grandfathered” properties.

Grandfathered Properties

If a property was built and used legally before the zoning laws changed, it’s considered grandfathered in and can usually continue to operate in the same way. The property has legal nonconforming status which allows it to be used in ways no longer permitted under current zoning. For example, a commercial business operating in a now-residential district may be grandfathered in and allowed to remain.

Bringing Properties into Compliance

In some cases, a local zoning board may require a nonconforming property to be brought into compliance over time. This could involve securing permits, reducing activity levels, or even ceasing operations entirely. Property owners are usually given ample time to make necessary changes. Financial hardship and substantial investment are often considered.

Expansion Limitations

Nonconforming properties generally cannot be expanded or altered to increase nonconformity. There are often limitations on changes to the structure, additional building, or expanded operations. Minor repairs and routine maintenance are usually allowed. Any proposed changes would need zoning approval to ensure they don’t exacerbate nonconformity. Property owners should check local zoning laws.

Zoning Map

A zoning map is an important document that visually shows how land is divided into different zoning districts. The purpose of a zoning map is to clearly illustrate the boundaries and locations of the various zoning districts in a city or town.

Zoning maps are typically created and maintained by a municipality’s planning department or zoning board. They are legal documents that determine what can and cannot be built on each parcel of land.

When reading a zoning map, different colors, patterns, or abbreviations are used to denote the different zoning classifications. For example, areas zoned for single-family residential may be shown in yellow, while areas zoned for commercial use are shown in red. The map should include a legend that explains what each color or abbreviation represents.

To find your zoning designation, first locate your property on the map. Identify the color or abbreviation used for that area. Then refer to the map’s legend to determine which zoning classification applies to your property. This will tell you the permitted land uses, dimensional standards, and other zoning requirements for developing your property.

Knowing your zoning is crucial when considering renovations, expansion plans, or new construction. The zoning map provides the information you need to understand what is allowed or not allowed under the zoning rules that apply to your specific property. Checking the zoning map early in the planning process can help avoid issues down the road.

Amending Zoning Laws

Zoning laws are not set in stone and can be amended over time as a community’s needs change. There are several reasons municipalities may decide to amend their zoning code:

  • To allow for new types of development. As trends change, cities may need to modify zoning to permit new uses. For example, allowing mixed-use zoning in a previously single-use area.
  • To incentivize development. Cities can use zoning amendments to encourage development in certain areas by changing density allowances or permitted uses.
  • To preserve neighborhood character. Zoning amendments may restrict development in order to maintain the existing scale and feel of an area.
  • To comply with state or federal laws. Zoning codes may need to be updated to adhere to new legislation.

The process for amending zoning varies by jurisdiction but typically involves multiple steps:

  • Proposal. The request for a zoning amendment often comes from a property owner, developer, or the zoning commission itself.
  • Review. The proposed amendment is reviewed by planning staff and commissions to determine its compatibility with the comprehensive plan. There is often opportunity here for public comment.
  • Public hearings. Most municipalities require multiple public hearings before the planning commission and city council to give community members a chance to voice support or concerns.
  • Decision. After weighing input from staff, commissions, and the public, the city council or other governing body votes on whether to approve the zoning amendment.
  • Changes. If approved, the zoning map and code are updated accordingly.

Public involvement is key throughout the zoning amendment process. Attending hearings, writing letters, circulating petitions, and contacting officials are ways that citizens can make their voices heard on zoning changes that impact their community. Though amending zoning can often be controversial, it allows regulations to adapt over time to the changing needs of a municipality.


Local governments employ zoning administrators to oversee zoning compliance. The zoning administrator reviews permit applications, conducts inspections, and investiges complaints of zoning violations. They have the authority to issue notices of violation and stop work orders when zoning infractions occur.

If a property owner does not comply with zoning regulations, the local government can impose fines and other penalties. The amount of fines varies by jurisdiction, but often starts at $100-500 per day for minor violations. Major violations or refusal to correct an issue can result in fines of $1000 or more per day.

In severe cases, the local government may revoke issued permits, such as a certificate of occupancy, business license, or building permit. This prevents the noncompliant use of the property from legally continuing. Revocation of permits is generally reserved for flagrant violations and repeat offenders who fail to pay fines or make necessary changes.

The local zoning board may also pursue litigation against violators who do not comply with orders to correct zoning violations. This can result in court-ordered fines, fees, demolition of structures, or injunctions preventing illegal uses. Proactive compliance with local zoning laws is key to avoiding these enforcement actions.

Hiring a Zoning Lawyer

Hiring a zoning lawyer can provide valuable expertise when dealing with zoning laws and disputes. Here are some key considerations when bringing on legal counsel.

When You May Need an Attorney

There are several instances when getting a zoning lawyer makes sense:

  • If you are seeking a variance or special permit from the zoning board. An attorney can help navigate the process and make the strongest case.
  • If you receive a notice of zoning violation. A lawyer can review the situation and craft the optimal response strategy.
  • If you want to appeal a decision made by the zoning board. Attorneys are familiar with the appeals process.
  • When proposing a new development project. Counsel can advise on zoning compliance issues during the planning stages.
  • If a neighbor’s use of their property violates zoning and is impacting you. A lawyer can send a cease and desist letter or bring legal action.

Having expert legal guidance can be invaluable when zoning issues arise to protect your rights and interests.

Finding a Qualified Zoning Lawyer

It’s important to find an attorney with specific experience in zoning and land use law. Look for these credentials:

  • A law degree and bar admission.
  • Concentration or expertise in municipal law, real estate law, or land use law.
  • Membership in the American Bar Association’s State & Local Government Law Section.
  • Background representing clients before zoning boards.
  • Listings in Best Lawyers for Land Use & Zoning Law or Martindale-Hubbell’s Land Use & Zoning Law Directory.

Ask the attorney about their zoning law experience, typical clients, and success rate with zoning cases.

Costs of Hiring an Attorney

Fees will vary based on the attorney’s experience, your location, and the complexity of your case. On average, expect to pay:

  • $200-$400 per hour for legal advice and representation
  • $1,000-$5,000+ for representation through a simple variance process
  • $10,000+ for representation on a complex zoning matter like litigation

Be sure to understand the lawyer’s rates and get an estimate of total costs. The investment can be worth it to achieve your zoning goals and protect your legal rights.

Give Us a Call Today at (804) 420-8515

RVAHomeBuyers 2023 v1
Get More Real Estate Market Info... Subscribe Below!

Learn more about us and find other resources on selling your house below. Like us, follow us, connect!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Call Us!
(804) 420-8515