The ins and outs of zoning

Utah Land

Zoning ordinances and regulations are laws setting limits on how you can use your property. Cities, counties, townships and other local governments use zoning laws to guide development and shape the community, usually under an overall zoning plan.

Why Zoning Is a Big Issue

Zoning laws come into play on every single real estate development, big or small. So if you’re thinking about buying property or making improvements to property you own, know how zoning laws fit into your plan.

Zoning Conflicts, Property Values and Plans

Zoning uses often conflict with one another. For example, a commercial building usually can’t be built on property zoned for residential use. Or your plans for a dream house in the country may clash with agricultural zoning. These zoning issues may affect a property’s value, for both buyers and sellers. It all depends on who wants the property and the plans they have for it.

Zoning Changes Aren’t Easy

Getting the zoning changed on property can be a very difficult process. First there’s notice to the public, then hearings, ending with a local board or commission granting a zoning variance allowing your change. You can find out how property is zoned by calling your local planning department. They can also explain the zoning variance process in your area. A local land use or real estate attorney can help review your land use plans, and your options for handling zoning issues.

Common Zoning Provisions

Use Requirements and Restrictions

Use requirements refer to how property can be used. Typical zoning categories include:

  • Residential
  • Commercial
  • Industrial
  • Agricultural
  • Recreational

These categories usually break down into further subcategories. For example, residential zoning has subcategories for single-family and multiple-family homes. Zoning laws set out many use restrictions, such as:

  • Building height and overall size
  • Density, or how close buildings are to one another
  • What part of the area of a building lot may contain structures
  • What specific kinds of facilities are included with certain kinds of uses

For example, there are usually zoning limits on the number of stories and total height of a building, minimum parking areas for a commercial site and requirements for garages and driveways for a home.

Zoning Ordinance Bulk Requirements

The bulk requirements of a zoning ordinance cover:

  • Building height and size restrictions
  • A building’s square footage
  • The percentage of area a building covers on a lot
  • Minimum lot size

The setback and side-yard requirements control the distance between a building and the front, back and side property lines.


Land is divided up into legal parcels. In most places, there’s a zoning process to follow if you want to split your land into smaller parcels or create a subdivision. There are usually simplified procedures if you want to divide your property into only two to four parcels. These are sometimes called lot splits. The process is more complex for a major subdivision. A developer must prepare a site plan or subdivision map, showing details for the planned property use. Subdivision laws may mandate:

  • Lot size
  • Street specifications
  • Utility requirements

In some states, local governments have the power to require developers to pay for infrastructure for their projects. Costs include new utilities, roads and schools. By the time a subdivision is approved, the developer has been through many public hearings and responded to those who object to its plan.