Land Use & Zoning Laws

Land Use & Zoning Laws

If you’ve traveled anywhere in the state of Texas, you’ve probably noticed that real estate zoning is handled on a city by city basis. One trip to Houston, which holds the distinction as the only major American city that lacks zoning, and it becomes very apparent. It’s not uncommon to see businesses next door to private residences.

Zoning is a municipality’s right to create districts and set regulations regarding how properties within them can be utilized. These districts fall into one of three categories: residential, commercial or industrial. Zoning falls within a city’s “police powers,” which refers to its right to establish rules for the health, safety, morals and welfare of its citizens.

Zoning can be traced back to the mid-1800’s, when restrictions were put in place to prevent noxious and/or unsanitary businesses from setting up shop adjacent to private residences. The first zoning ordinance was enacted by New York City in 1916; other cities soon followed suit.

Is There a Difference Between Zoning and Land-Use Regulations?

Yes. Zoning ordinances regulate the current use of properties, while land-use regulations define future developments. Land-use regulations are master plans developed by municipalities. Once those have been developed, zoning laws are established to enforce the use of properties within the zone. Land-use regulations guide future developers, while zoning laws regulate current inhabitants. Zoning is a form of land-use regulation.

Can Individuals Make Change Requests to Zoning Laws?

When a land owner wants to use the land in a manner incompatible with local zoning laws, these several options for remedy.  The two most commonly seen are requests for zoning change and zoning variance.

  • Zoning Change–Anyone can propose a zoning law change. Zoning laws change requests are reviewed by the city’s zoning commission. The commission holds public hearings on a regular basis, and then makes recommendations to the city council. It’s up to the city council to enact the zoning laws.
  • Variance—A variance is a request to use property in a manner that does not comply with zoning rules. If a land owner can make a compelling case that existing zoning laws present a practical difficulty in making use of the property, a variance will be granted. Variance requests are usually presented to a city’s board of adjustment. Texas law requires that each city’s board of adjustment consist of five (5) city council-appointed members. Changes must be approved by at least 75 percent of the board.

What Real Estate Developers Need to Know About Land-Use Regulations

While the designation of a piece of property for residential, business or industrial use seems clear cut, there are many land-use regulations that real estate developers may not have considered. For instance, there are regulations that govern the type of construction, the size and height of buildings, location of utility lines and setbacks from streets or other boundaries. But this only scratches the surface of regulations with which developers must comply.

Because zoning laws are established by each city, and each city must adhere to laws set forth by the Texas Legislature, it’s important to consult with an attorney experienced in real estate law. The real estate attorneys at Bennett Weston LaJone & Turner, P.C. will answer questions you have about your city’s zoning ordinances and land-use regulations. Not understanding them could cost you considerable time and expense.

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