How Do You Get a Zoning Change for Your Property?

Understanding how to rezone property

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 26, 2023

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Getting a zoning change is “like anything else you want from the government,” says Texas eminent domain attorney Charles B. McFarland. “You go through the proper channels by filing an application or request, and [the governing body] considers it.” 

At the same time, McFarland adds, “It’s important to understand that zoning is the municipality’s mechanism for controlling land use.” As such, zoning laws “typically involve a lot of long-term planning.”  

A municipality’s land use and zoning regulations may “feel constraining for a landowner,” says McFarland, “but that doesn’t mean [the planning] is out of bounds” or that property owners are necessarily entitled to compensation for the impacts of zoning regulations on their property. 

However, when current zoning laws don’t allow property owners or developers to use their land the way they want, they can apply to rezone the area. This article will give an overview of the rezoning process.   

A good lawyer helps. “It would be difficult [to rezone property] without legal help,” says McFarland. “Obviously, everything depends on the economies of scale involved and the value of what you’re trying to do.”  

Is Your Use Allowed Under Current Zoning? 

Land use laws are enacted primarily at the state and local levels—though various federal regulations are also applicable. Zoning districts allow certain uses of property while prohibiting other uses. Having land divided into zones gives uniformity and order to the area.  

Before taking steps to get a zoning exception or to change the zoning rules governing your property, you need to understand if your use of property fits in with current zoning.  

If your use complies with current land use regulations, you don’t have to do anything. If your usage is out of step with current zoning, you will either need to change your use, get an exception for your nonconforming use, or change the zoning so your use is no longer nonconforming.  

Your first step is to get your municipality’s zoning map and figure out the zoning rules that apply to your property and the surrounding area. Typical zoning districts include: 

  • Residential use area for single-family and multifamily residences, apartments, etc. 
  • Industrial use areas for factories and manufacturing 
  • Commercial use areas for businesses, retailers, etc. 

Can You Adjust Your Use to Fit Current Zoning Laws? 

If the use you make of your property conflicts with current zoning rules, consider whether you can adjust your usage to comply with existing laws.  

Every situation is different, and sometimes it’s impossible to reconcile what you want to do with your land with what the local government has said can be done on your land.  

In other situations, however, you may be able to work out a solution by adjusting your use.  

Get an Exception: Use Permits and Zoning Variances  

If adjusting your use is not a realistic option, consider getting an exception for your nonconforming use. 

There are a few ways to do this: 

  • Variance. Generally, a variance is a waiver or exception that would permit relatively small or insignificant deviations from zoning rules when it would burden the property owner to follow the current rules. For example, you might get a variance for a nonconforming driveway or parking area or how far back your building sits from the road. Variances don’t allow uses of land that are totally contrary to the zoning district. 
  • Conditional use permit. These permits allow uses of property that conflict with current zoning laws. The main difference between variances and conditional use permits is their scope—conditional use permits are generally broader than variances in the deviations they allow. Whereas variances cover minor differences from zoning rules, conditional use permits allow uses that are not included in current zoning regulations or that are contrary to current zoning regulations. 
  • Nonconforming use permit. Suppose a property owner was already using their property in a way that conflicts with new zoning laws. In that case, the property owner can apply for a nonconforming use permit, which allows them to continue using their land as they had before the new zoning laws. 

Getting zoning exceptions varies by locality but generally involves filing an application and paying a filing fee with the local zoning board. The board may call a hearing to review the application. The application may have to go through multiple layers of review—for example, from the zoning board to the city council. 

Change the Zoning Laws 

If an exception won’t work, you may want to take steps to change the zoning law itself. 

An important preliminary step in the process of getting a zoning change is to speak with the owners of surrounding properties. Their input will be necessary when the governing authorities consider your proposed zoning changes. If you can get the support of neighboring property owners, it will help your case.  

The process for changing zoning laws varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The following steps, however, are fairly standard: 

  • Submit a rezoning request. You will complete a rezoning application requesting the zoning classification change, including an explanation of why you want the change, along with data about the area, zoning impacts, etc. 
  • Review. The governing authority will review your application and possibly request additional information. 
  • Public hearing. The zoning board or local planning commission will call a public meeting to discuss the proposed changes, ask questions, and get community input on the plan review. 
  • Decision. If the planning commission approves your proposed changes, they will recommend them to the locality’s legislative body. There will likely be another round of public hearings to consider the plan before the governing body votes on it. 

Rezoning property is often a legally complex and time-consuming process, and it’s wise to have legal help “to shepherd you through that process,” says McFarland. 

“Many land use lawyers… do a lot of work with developers dealing with a city or municipality’s planning department or city council trying to get a development approved. This sort of activity is not litigation-oriented. … Rather, the developer is trying to get their product to market—i.e., the sale or lease of a unit of property. It’s more of a transactional practice.” 

Questions for a Land Use & Zoning Attorney 

To get the most out of a consultation, ask informed questions such as: 

  • What are your attorney’s fees and billing options? 
  • What is your experience with property zoning issues? 
  • What is the zoning designation of my area? 
  • Am I in compliance with current zoning requirements? 
  • Should I get a zoning exception or try to change the zoning laws? 
  • How likely is success in rezoning? 

Once you have met with a lawyer and gotten your questions answered, you can begin an attorney-client relationship. 

Look for a land use & zoning lawyer in the Super Lawyers directory.

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