Land Use & Zoning Law

Land use and zoning law is the law that determines how a landowner can use their land. Land use and zoning law involves the creation, application and challenges of land use laws. Government bodies create laws that restrict what landowners can do with their real property. The laws may control how landowners can develop property, what types of activities they can do with their property or both. Land use and zoning law is the restriction of a private property owner’s land use presumably for the public good.

Zoning laws divide property use into residential, commercial and industrial uses

Zoning laws and land use restrictions tell landowners what they may do with their property. Typically, they divide the land into residential, commercial and industrial uses. There are often several subdivisions or mixed categories within the three main categories.

For example, a residential category may have a subdivision for high-density housing. There may be another category for houses that require large lots and setbacks from the road. Low-density residential zones may have restrictions on home businesses or terms of property rental.

Residential zones may also combine with commercial zones for mixed-use zones with storefronts and residential units. There may be separate categories for transient housing like hotels or dormitories. It’s up to each government body to determine how to categorize zoning and restrict land use.

Most land use and zoning laws occur at the local level

The authority to create land use restrictions and zoning law comes from the police powers that are left to each state. The U.S. Constitution gives only limited powers to the federal government. Powers not given to the federal government are left to the states. Each state has the power to pass laws and enforce them as they see fit.

Most states, in turn, delegate zoning and land use authorities to local governments. They believe that local governments are in the best position to manage their own affairs. For that reason, most land use and zoning laws occur at a municipal level.

Land use and zoning attorneys often become very familiar with local laws and regulations. Because the laws are local, there often isn’t a great deal of case law interpreting any given ordinance. Attorneys must rely on the plain language of the zoning law or published interpretations of other similar ordinances in order to form arguments for their clients.

Legal challenges to zoning laws

One of the first U.S. Zoning cases was Village of Euclid, Ohio v Ambler Realty Co. The case upheld the use of zoning laws when the laws serve a legitimate government purpose and do not unreasonably burden the property owner. However, in the Nectow v. City of Cambridge case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there are instances where a government entity may make a zoning law that is too burdensome or serves no public purpose. Often, the outcome of a case hinges on the particular facts and even the effect of the restriction on the individual property owner. It’s critically important for a land use and zoning attorney to build the case on behalf of their client with supporting evidence and legal precedent.

Private homeowners associations

Land use and zoning law also involves a great deal of creating and enforcing land use restrictions between private individuals. Individuals and land developers can create deed restrictions and covenants that limit use of land. Agreements that restrict the use of land are common among homeowners associations. The purpose of voluntary restrictive covenants is to preserve the character of a neighborhood and allow all property owners to enjoy the benefits of compliance with the restrictions.

Attorneys who practice land use and zoning law help their clients create and challenge land use restrictions. Creating a land-use restriction means ensuring that a homeowners association properly incorporates in order to have the authority to create restrictive covenants. It also means helping clients draft meaningful and enforceable restrictions. Finally, attorneys represent their clients to challenge restrictive covenants on the basis of reasonableness or constitutional prohibitions.

Modern zoning challenges and home share laws

One of the modern, hot-button issues surrounding land use restrictions is online home-rental services like Airbnb and HomeAway. With these websites making online advertising easy, millions of property owners throughout the world are entering into the business of renting their properties. Some of these property owners rent a room or space in a home they occupy. Other owners rent an entire property to a short-term renter. Many of these rentals are in violation of local zoning restrictions that prohibit short-term rentals.

Because online home-rental websites make it easier to market short-term home rentals than it has ever been, many people believe that zoning ordinances that prohibit the behavior are outdated. Others believe that the zoning ordinances that restrict short-term rentals are just as important as ever and that they should be aggressively enforced. Land use and zoning attorneys that work on short-term rental issues may work for a municipality. They may also work for a short-term rental website who must lobby a local government for favorable law. Finally, they may work for private individuals that want short-term rental prohibitions enforced or for someone who wants to challenge rental restrictions.

What’s the purpose of land use and zoning law?

The purpose of land use and zoning law is to ensure that property owners can use and enjoy their property. If a nearby property has a drastically different use, the value or use options for the land can be diminished drastically. For example, a home in a residential area near a city may have a high value while a home adjacent to a heavy industrial area may have little value. While land use restrictions limit what a property owner can do with their property, in theory, the restrictions are for the greater good and the enjoyment of all the property owners involved. The proper purpose and extent of land use and zoning laws continue to be a matter of debate.

Who practices land use and zoning law?

Because most land use and zoning regulations occur on a local level, most land use and zoning lawyers have a local practice. An attorney who represents a city or municipality may be an employee of the government entity. They may also work as a contractor who performs municipal legal work at an hourly rate.

The larger a municipality is, the more likely they are to directly employ zoning attorneys. In addition, the larger a municipality is, the more likely they are to have attorneys who specialize in only land use and zoning laws. Smaller government entities are more likely to rely on a single or a small number of attorneys to meet their land use and zoning needs. Attorneys may practice land use and zoning law alone but many combine their practice with other municipal law issues and a broader government law practice.

Land use and zoning attorneys also represent the private individuals who challenge restrictions. Zoning attorneys typically represent clients that have needs in the geographic region where they practice. Representing private property owners may mean appearing before government bodies for quasi-judicial proceedings. It may also mean formal litigation in traditional courts.

Why Become a Land Use and Zoning lawyer?

Land use and zoning law can be the basis of a stable legal career that allows an attorney to participate in and influence their community. Land use and zoning law can be a good fit for attorneys who prefer transactional work instead of trial law. Attorneys in the field must enjoy reading and interpreting laws. They may work for a municipality, or they may work for a law firm of any size.

Attorneys in the field often work in an advisory capacity. They advise their clients of what they can do legally with their land. In addition, attorneys in the field must be skillful in working with groups and approaching government bodies on behalf of their clients. Land use and zoning work can provide regular and stable work that allows an attorney to gain standing in their community. Attorneys may use the exposure they receive in the community in order to campaign for public office.

Creating a community

Land use and zoning laws create the character of a community. They are critically important for the landowners that they affect and for the public at large. Land use and zoning attorneys participate in the creation, enforcement and interpretation of zoning laws. The area of law can provide a challenging, steady and rewarding career path for attorneys who enjoy reading laws, speaking before public bodies and who enjoy the area of property law.