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Zoning Law

Zoning refers to the laws dividing cities into different areas according to use, from single-family residences to industrial plants. Zoning ordinances control the size, location and use of buildings within these different areas.

Zoning works as a function to divide a municipality into districts or zones, thus assigning distinct land use for each district. A zoning commission generally will separate land use into categories such as residential, industrial, commercial and agricultural. In some cases, further distinctions will be made, such as the division of industrial districts into heavy or light industry and the division of residential districts into single-family or multiple-family residences.

Zoning regulations can become controversial because they sometimes restrict the rights of owners to use their property the way they would like to. Courts have determined that zoning regulation is permissible if it is reasonable and not arbitrary. It must bear a substantial relation to public health, safety, morals and general welfare.

How far can land-use regulation go before reaching constitutional injunctions against taking private property for public use without just compensation? Because of recent court decisions, it is more difficult for municipalities to require land developers to give up parts of their property for public purposes. These cases help define the point at which government demand for control over land reaches a point that it must compensate the owner through eminent domain and condemnation of the property.

Land Use

Today, federal, state and local governments regulate growth and development through statutory law. The majority of controls on land, however, stem from actions of private developers and individuals. Three typical situations involving such private entities and the court system are suits brought by one neighbor against another, suits brought by a public official against a neighboring landowner on behalf of the public, and suits involving individuals who share ownership of a particular parcel of land. In these settings, judicial determination and enforcement of private land-use arrangements not only can reinforce public regulation but also achieve forms and levels of control that zoning cannot.

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

Last updated on: Oct. 2, 2008

The content on this page was developed in partnership with the Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.

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