Zoning Defined

Modern zoning laws are ostensibly designed to promote health, welfare and efficiency within a municipality by cities or towns into different areas, or zones, and restricting the way property can be used in each zone. Typical zoning schemes provide for specific locations for single and multiple family dwellings, retail establishments, bars and restaurants, agriculture and heavy industry. Under most zoning laws, a zoning commission is given the authority to determine, and also has the ability to grant exceptions (known as variances) under certain circumstances.

Though the concept of zoning has been sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court, zoning ordinances or regulations are still often subject to legal challenges, typically based on arguments that the land use restrictions constitute a taking of property without compensation. When reviewing such challenges, the courts customarily allow zoning that is reasonable and not arbitrary; and that bears a substantial relation to public health, safety, morals or general welfare. The trend, over the last two decades, has favored landowners, as courts have more often found efforts by municipalities to impose extensive zoning schemes to be unconstitutional.

The Regulation of Land Use

Typically, when a local, state or federal government wants to regulate growth and development, the tool of choice is an ordinance or statute. However, much of the law that has developed regarding the control of land use has been the product of lawsuits filed by private developers or citizens. These actions generally take one of the following forms:

  • Lawsuits brought by one neighbor against another
  • Lawsuits brought by a public official against a landowner on behalf of the public
  • Lawsuits between joint owners of a parcel of property

The judicial determination and enforcement of private land-use arrangements often reinforces public regulation, but can also bring about forms and levels of control that zoning cannot.

Two major federal laws have been passed in the last half century that significantly limit land use: the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

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