Understanding Zoning Ordinances and Property Rights in the US

Land use and zoning laws are regulations that control and direct the development of real estate. Since New York City adopted the first zoning ordinance in 1916, virtually every major urban area in the United States has adopted zoning regulations. These laws are rules that determine what can and cannot be done on and with land, with the main objective of separating people who use certain land uses in a way that is detrimental to other landowners from people for whom that use would be harmful. Zoning laws are most often enacted and enforced by local authorities, not at the state or national level. Municipal governments, village governments, and the like are functions of the state government.

Ownership comes with many rights, however, these rights are often superseded by local zoning ordinances. Zoning regulations impose restrictions on how a particular property can be used and establish requirements such as building heights and setbacks. Some landlords view these ordinances as a violation of their constitutional right to personal property, while zoning advocates argue that zoning ensures that land is developed in a way that protects the rights of all members of a community. New Jersey allows each municipality in the state to adopt its own construction and land use laws within its municipal boundaries, and all homeowners must comply with these laws. When attempting to subdivide land, develop a property, establish a business, build a commercial building, or simply add an extension to their home, the owner may need to request a “modification” from the Municipal Planning Board or the Zoning Board if the land, structure, or proposed use of the property does not conform to the municipality's zoning ordinances. It is generally assumed that uses of properties that are more “dense” (that are used more intensively) will be harmful to neighboring properties that are used less frequently.

An experienced lawyer can make the difference between getting the difference you need to legally build on your property or losing your application due to technicalities because you weren't familiar with New Jersey's complex zoning and land use laws. The set of rights includes the right to sell the property, build on the property, lease it, control access to the property, subdivide the property, grant easements on the property, and extract or cultivate the property. To avoid this problem, zoning laws often require the gradual cessation of activities that violate the zoning law, rather than ending such activities all at once. Zoning laws are based on the basic assumption that property must be protected against uses of neighboring property that may be harmful to the use or enjoyment of the property. Of course, these regulations often make it difficult for cities and towns to change their zoning laws to prohibit uses of properties that already exist. As zoning ordinances spread across the United States, they were challenged by those who felt that they constituted a violation of their individual rights to do what they wanted with their own property. In addition to regulating location of properties, zoning law establishes parameters for various considerations within each zone.

An extremely difficult question that arises in this area of law is how far land use regulations can go without running into constitutional prohibition of taking private property for public use without fair compensation. Tulane University's online Master of Jurisprudence in Environmental Law and Energy Law provides information on evolving regulations and training to help solve problems in all aspects of environmental problems. Whether you need to obtain an easement to reliably access your property, are looking for property for a new business, or have other questions about land use and zoning law, an attorney should be able to help. Because land use and zoning regulations restrict rights of landowners to use their property as they could (and often would want to), they are sometimes controversial. A cumulative zoning scheme will divide a city into zones and then allow use of property as long as it is zoned for that use or for a use that is higher on list.