Commercial Zoning Laws 101

Zoning laws affect almost every facet of commercial real estate. They determine how a particular property can be used, what modifications or additions can be made to a building, and more. Without an understanding of zoning laws, you risk creating future issues for your business. In this article, you will learn the basics of zoning laws.

The History of Zoning Laws
The concept of zoning was first introduced around 1916 in New York City in response to the construction of a 40-story office building named the Equitable Building. Complaints began from neighboring buildings as light was blocked and air flow limited. To prevent similar issues, lawmakers formulated a set of restrictions for all projects and business uses moving forward.

The idea caught on quickly, and by 1924 the rest of the country had adopted the idea of zoning laws as a means of balancing the needs of each community. A residential neighborhood no longer had to worry about a factory operation affecting their way of life. Similarly, commercial projects were able to expand without the concern of residential neighborhood standards.

Why is Zoning Important?
Zoning laws create a balance within a community. Jobs are created with commercial buildings, but only if residents have peaceful neighborhoods to return home to. Knowing that homes are protected from the potential invasion of businesses also helps to ensure property values. Values are further protected by the ability of zoning laws to enforce uniform lots and buildings to create symmetry. Zoning laws take into consideration the need for recreational areas, agricultural zones and preserve natural ecosystems. Zoning laws keep areas looking clean, property values high and businesses from infiltrating citizens’ way of life.

What are Zoning Ordinances?
Zoning ordinances are the laws put into effect by a local government that regulate future development within an area. Each area creates its own zoning map, which is broken into sections called zoning districts. These districts are typically labeled Residential, Commercial, Industrial, Manufacturing, etc. There are also sub-districts (R1, R2, R3, C1, C2, etc.) that specify even further. The maps are created to offer a picture of how the city or town will be laid out and what each parcel of land will be used for. A residential district will only allow for residences to be built there. Within that district, there may be sub-districts solely intended for one-story, single-family homes, multi-family living or even trailer homes.

Understanding Common Zoning Terminology
Within the realm of zoning ordinances lies the ability to establish standards of development within a given area. Governing authorities can outline regulations that will determine how tall a building can be on a given lot, how much parking it may offer, required setbacks, lot sizes and more. When researching zoning ordinances, there are a few terms you are likely to come across:

  • Building Height: The maximum height a building may be from the average ground level to the tallest point on the structure.
  • Easements: Any space on a property that may be legally used for another specific purpose, such as the placement of underground water or utility lines.
  • FAR (Floor Area Ratio): The maximum percentage of floor area a building may have (including all levels) in relation to the area of the lot.
  • Building Coverage: The maximum amount of space the actual structure may take up on the lot.
  • LCR (Lot Coverage Ratio): The maximum percentage of a lot that can be covered by both the structure and the pavement.
  • Setbacks: The pre-determined space that a structure must have between its exterior walls and the lot lines.

What are Zoning Variances?
Occasionally, zoning ordinances may be challenged if they are causing a hardship for a property owner. Grievances will be put before a review board who will determine whether it makes sense to make an exception to the ordinance on a case-by-case basis. These typically occur in one of two categories. Area variances (referring to a hardship created by the odd shape or orientation of a lot) or use variances (referring to a special request for a lot to be considered for a use outside of its predetermined district).

Having some understanding of zoning laws – why they exist, who they benefit, and more – is crucial when determining your next business location. For more information on commercial zoning laws or for any commercial real estate needs, please feel free to contact me.

John Viscounty | Associate Broker
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