What is Land Use and Zoning Law?

Real property owners should be aware of the applicable land use and zoning requirements

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on February 1, 2023

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Property rights are affected by the law. As explained by The World Bank, land use and zoning regulations are laws that allow local, state, and national authorities to regulate how individuals, businesses, and organizations can use their property. Land use and zoning laws impact several things—from small projects initiated by residential property owners to large-scale commercial real estate developments to complex environmental issues. Property owners should be aware of the appropriate land use and zoning requirements. Land use or zoning law breach could result in sanctions, including financial penalties. The information provided within this article is meant to serve as an introduction to use of land and zoning regulations. If you have any specific questions about land use/zoning amendments, matters, or initiatives, do not hesitate to reach out to an experienced land use and zoning lawyer for help.

Land Use and Zoning Law – What You Need to Know

  • Land use and zoning laws arise from federal, state, and local governments.
  • With some limited exceptions, federal land use regulations and tend to be environmental.
  • Most states tend to focus their land use and zoning laws on significant issues such as the environment, transportation, and large-scale residential or commercial development.
  • Zoning and land use planning issues are most often regulated by local agencies under municipal law, meaning it’s best to have an attorney experienced in local government regulation.

An Overview of Land Use and Zoning Regulations

Land use and zoning laws are complicated because they arise from several sources. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) explains that the governance of property/land in the United States can be regulated at the federal, state, and local levels. Here is a brief overview of the critical things to know about each type of land use/zoning regulation:
  • Federal Law: With some limited exceptions, federal land use regulations tend to be environmental in nature. Fundamental federal environmental land use laws include The Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, and the Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). When they are implicated, federal land use regulations tend to be the most difficult to challenge.
  • State Law: While there is some variation from state to state, most states tend to focus their land use and zoning laws on significant issues such as the environment, natural resources, transportation, and large-scale residential or commercial development.
  • Local Law: Zoning and land use issues are most often municipal. Property owner rights may be affected by regulations crafted by a city, town, or county — for example, regulations governing residential development, the types of buildings that can be built in a certain area, land use restrictions, guidelines for future developments, affordable housing, historic preservation, or maintaining open spaces. As there is wide variation in land use/zoning requirements across the country, parties need to work with an experienced local attorney.

How Land Use & Zoning Lawyers Help Clients

Land use and zoning attorneys often have diverse legal skills and experience. This is because lawyers who practice land use and zoning frequently assist clients in various legal matters. These attorneys are retained by residential property homeowners, commercial property owners, businesses, real estate developers, environmental protection organizations, and other parties. Along with different types of issues, a local land use and zoning lawyer may be able to assist you with any of the following:
  • Real Estate Development (Review): Land use and zoning lawyers are retained for guidance in the early stages of real estate development projects. A local zoning attorney can be helpful in residential projects, commercial development, and industrial development. Before putting significant resources into a project, real estate developers must be sure that their general plan is entirely consistent with all relevant land use and zoning ordinances. If the current plan does not comply with the regulations, there may be an option for getting land use and zoning rules changed. Comprehensive land use and zoning review of a development or construction project is always an important step.
  • Easements and Boundary Line Issues: In property law, an easement is effectively a limited right to cross or otherwise use another party’s land for a limited purpose. Easements are a common law right and can arise in many different contexts. Some easements run with the property due to a contractual right. Other easements exist under land use regulations, zoning regulations, or state common law. For example, a power company may have a utility easement to assess and repair power lines that cross through private property. A lawyer can help guide any easement issues. Beyond that, an experienced land use and zoning attorney can often help with other boundary line issues.
  • State or Local Permitting Issues: A business or property owner may need to file for a specialized permit in certain circumstances. A land use and zoning lawyer can advise clients on permitting issues and other related matters. As an example, this is often an issue in real estate development projects and different types of construction projects. A particular may ultimately be permissible—but only with the permits. Any required permits must be secured promptly. Permit delays can cause serious problems. If you have any specific questions or concerns about applying for a permit, contact a local land use and zoning attorney for help.
  • Land Use/Zoning Challenges, Appeals, and Dispute: Land use and zoning regulations are not static. Quite the contrary, many of these rules can be challenged or appealed—especially those that arise from the municipal level. An experienced land use and zoning law attorney can represent you in legal challenges, disputes, and formal appeals. If you or your business run into any issues with a local or state land use or zoning regulation, an attorney can help assess all available options to get a modification of the rules.
  • Federal Environmental Regulations: Environmental laws are complex. These land use regulations may arise under federal law, state law, or a combination of both. Indeed, federal agencies have adopted to delegate certain environmental powers to state agencies in many circumstances. If you have any specific questions or concerns about environmental regulation, a top-rated land use and zoning attorney can help. Environmental land use lawyers work with various parties, from developers to large corporations to nonprofit environmental advocacy organizations.

Common Questions About Land Use and Zoning

It is always important to take a pragmatic and proactive approach when it comes to land use regulation and zoning regulation. Unfortunately, local land use and zoning boards can sometimes be frustratingly slow to take action. Knowing the right questions to ask a qualified lawyer will put you in the best position to protect your property rights and financial interests. Here are some of the most common questions that people have for land use and zoning attorneys:
  • Is my land development plan consistent when local land use and zoning rules?
  • Do I need to apply for any permits to move forward with a construction project?
  • What options do I have regarding variances on my property?
  • What steps do I need to take to develop my property rights most effectively?
  • Can I get a change or modification to the current land use or zoning laws?
  • How should I respond if I am cited for a land use or zoning violation?
  • Is it possible to file a challenge against an eminent domain claim?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can guide you through the entire process. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer who practices land use and zoning law.

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