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Land use & zoning: what you need to know

Since New York City adopted the first zoning ordinances in 1916, land-use and zoning regulations have become standard in nearly all municipalities, particularly in urban areas. Each municipality may enact its own zoning and land-use ordinances specific to the needs of that particular area. These municipalities are also responsible for creating the planning and zoning boards that enact these ordinances and address any grievances of the landowners and residents within their community.

The rationale behind zoning is to promote the good of the community and promote a comprehensive plan for development. In doing so, zoning is designed to divide the municipality into three main types of districts: residential, commercial and industrial. There can be further restrictions on the use of property within these districts, commonly including, specific requirements for types of buildings, size and height of buildings, number of rooms and occupancy, as well as regulations governing placement of utility lines, boundary lines, building set-backs from the street, parking, and many other regulations. Additionally, land-use regulations can also provide for preservation of historically or culturally significant areas.

The goal of zoning is to provide a master plan not only for existing structures but for all future development of the municipality. However, since land-use and zoning ordinances often limit what owners can do with their own property, it's no surprise that these regulations are often controversial and may face pushback from the community. There is a fine line in balancing the necessity for land-use regulations and the impact on the constitutional rights of property owners.

Zoning regulations will generally be acceptable if they bear a reasonable and substantial relation to public safety, health, comfort, and general welfare of the community and are not arbitrary. Nevertheless, there is much room for interpretation given the subjective nature of this standard, and there are often many legal avenues available to challenge zoning and land-use regulations. Zoning boards often hear challenges and appeals to proposed ordinances. However, it is important to consult with an experienced real estate attorney to assist you in contesting these zoning regulations.

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