How To Fight Bad Zoning

If you’re seeking help to fight bad zoning anywhere in the USA then contact CEDS at 410-654-3021 (call-text) or for an initial no-cost discussion of strategy options. Please don’t hesitate. Delay almost always decreases the likelihood of success. Zoning is a critical tool for getting the benefits of growth while minimizing growing pains. But in some communities, zoning is used to benefit specific property owners or special interests at the expense of overall quality of life. If you believe that a proposed rezoning, zoning amendment, conditional use-special exception permit or other zoning-related action threatens your quality of life then contact CEDS at 410-654-3021 or Our advice on how to fight bad zoning is available free of charge to citizens seeking to preserve a neighborhood or the environment from flawed zoning decisions. To see an example of a CEDS zoning analysis click on: Birch Lake.

What Is Zoning?

Through zoning a locality (town, city or county) decides how each parcel of land can be used. Ideally, zoning minimizes the potential for conflicts with other, nearby residents-property owners with the fewest restrictions on how each property can be used. However, some restrictions are essential and commonly include:
  • the uses allowed on each property;
  • how close homes and other buildings can be to one another;
  • building height;
  • how many homes can be built on a property;
  • how much of a property can be covered by buildings; and
  • limits on potential nuisances due to noise, lighting or dust.
Most local ordinances will allow for 20 to 40 zoning classifications or districts. Within each district 10 to 50 specific uses are allowed by right, as accessory uses or by condition use-special exception permit:

By-Right or Permitted Uses

The ordinance will list uses allowed by right within each zoning district. By-right uses are distinguished from those that require a special-exception or conditional-use permit. By-right uses are frequently called permitted uses. The by-right uses can usually approved by a local planning commission or staff. Uses requiring a special-exception or conditional-use permit are usually subject to a more formal legal hearing.

Accessory Uses

These are activities that are allowed as a normal part of the principal uses permitted within a zoning district. For example, swimming pools and parking would be allowed within residential districts though restrictions may apply to the size of these and other accessory uses.

Conditional Use, Special Use & Special Exception Permits

Activities allowed with a Conditional-Use or Special-Exception permit are usually compatible with the other uses allowed within a zoning district. Occasionally though these uses can cause a conflict. Because of this a more thorough review process is required before a Conditional or Special Exception Use can be pursued. The process frequently includes a more formal legal proceeding. For further detail see the CEDS webpage for: Conditional-Use or Special-Exception Permits. Frequently zoning districts are grouped into categories such as:
  • Residential; Commercial; and Industrial or Manufacturing.
Within these three categories are a number of specific districts. Examples of typical residential districts include:
  • Rural, large-lots such as one house per 2- to 20-acres;
  • Single-family detached homes at a density of one, two, three or four per acre;
  • Single-family attached homes, which could be duplexes but are more likely to be townhouses; and
  • Apartment buildings.
Commercial and manufacturing uses are usually separated from residential, but neighborhood scale retail uses like small shopping centers are frequently allowed at the edge of residential areas.

Zoning At Its Best

When it works well zoning guides new development to sites where benefits will be maximized without detracting from the use and enjoyment of those owning adjoining lands or the community as a whole. When done well, zoning helps to achieve the following goals:
  • incompatible uses are not allowed near one another (e.g. industrial zones don’t abut residential zoning districts);
  • the pace of growth does not cause school overcrowding, traffic congestion, sewer overflows, water shortages, or overwhelm police, fire, ambulance and other emergency services;
  • areas dominated by working farms or sensitive environmental resources are zoned for very low density development;
  • thru-traffic on residential streets is not increased;
  • commercial and industrial uses do not disrupt neighborhoods with excessive noise, light, dust, or odors;
  • residential zoning districts are laid out to facilitate mass transit, walking, and bicycling for both existing and new neighborhoods;
  • sufficient open space is retained to accommodate active-passive recreation needs;
  • new development is directed to compact growth areas where density is kept high to keep property taxes low, preserve rural lands, facilitate mass transit, etc.;
  • residential zoning districts consist of a diversity of housing types with respect to affordability, size, targeted age-range, etc.; and
  • all of the uses a community needs are allowed somewhere within the town, city or county.
These are just some of the more important goals of zoning.

Good Zoning Results from Good Planning

Good planning is the key to designing a set of zoning regulations (also known as zoning ordinances) and zoning maps which will achieve these goals. At a minimum, every local jurisdiction should have a comprehensive plan setting forth the goals the community wishes to achieve as the area grows and the objectives essential to achieving those goals. The plan should be prepared through a process that encourages maximum participation by all community members and provides residents with the background information needed to understand how each alternative will affect their interests. Zoning and other subdivision or land use regulations as well as zoning maps provide the means to implement the goals set forth in the comprehensive plan. Good zoning can only result from a thorough, unbiased analysis of all realistic options for how locality might grow. Each option is ranked based on estimates of positive and negative effects. Residents of the locality then decide which option(s) will provide the best quality of life for them and their children. Thus, good zoning begins with a plan meeting these criteria.

Spot Zoning

Zoning changes should only occur when a comprehensive planning process or other thorough, public process shows that they will not adversely affect adjoining property owners. Spot zoning is the antithesis of such a process. It is usually defined as “the process of singling out a small parcel of land for a use classification totally different from that of the surrounding area for the benefit of the owner of such property and to the detriment of other owners.” Because of the harm resulting from incompatible uses, spot zoning is illegal in most cases. However, there are instances where it’s reasonable to rezone a property. For further detail click on the following: Spot Zoning.

Conditional & Contract Zoning

Let’s say that a land owner needs a change in zoning to pursue a specific use. However, the zoning regulations allow other uses that would cause harm to neighbors. While neighbors may not object to the proposed use other activities allowed once zoning is changed could be quite harmful. For example, a zoning district may allow single-family homes as well as landfills. To address this issue someone might propose that the zoning change be conditioned that only the compatible use can be pursued. Generally this form of conditional or contract zoning is illegal.

Protest Petitions – A Vital Option

A number of states and localities allow the filing of a protest petition by those concerned about annexation, rezoning, conditional use or special exception permits. This action requires a super majority vote to approve the applicant’s request. In other words, to approve the application two-thirds or three-fourths of the members of the town board or county council must vote in favor. Otherwise an application can be approved with a simple majority. Though the requirements vary, usually a minimum percentage of those owning property within a set distance of the site must sign a petition with a specific format then file it a set number of days prior to a hearing or other event. So, your first step should be to determine if the protest petition option is available then make certain you meet all the requirements. Protest petitions are but one of many steps essential to protecting a neighborhood from poorly planned growth. However, because it is frequently key to success we opted to bring it to your attention here. Keep in mind though that a protest petition is but one of a number of steps to victory. The other steps are described in our free 300-page book, How To Win Land Development Issues, and in the other webpages listed in the right column at the top of this page. If you lack the time to read through all these materials then consider retaining CEDS to carry out an Initial Strategy Analysis, which frequently leads to success at a far lower cost than simply hiring an attorney.

Winning Zoning & Rezoning Battles

CEDS exists solely to help citizens win zoning, land development and environmental issues. Because of this specialization, we can pull together a top-notch team of leading experts, including a good zoning attorney practicing in your area, to quickly analyze your situation and develop the easiest, least expensive strategy for success. Our strategies employ an aggressive approach on multiple fronts: legal, technical, and political. Because of this unique approach our clients win 90% of their cases vs. the much lower success rate typical of more conventional campaign strategies. And our victories come at a fraction of the cost. Our approach to winning zoning, land use and environmental cases is described in a 300-page book which can be downloaded free by clicking on the following title: How To Win Land Development Issues: A Citizens Guide To Preserving & Enhancing Quality of Life in Developing Areas. In Chapter 35 of our free 300-page book How To Win Land Development Issues we explain how to find the quickest, most effective strategy for resolving your zoning-related concerns. But if time is short then consider a CEDS Initial Strategy Analysis. We can also help you to raise the funds needed to hire a good zoning attorney and the other professionals needed to implement the strategy quickly. Additionally, we have a nationwide network of more than 200 attorneys who specialize in helping citizens with zoning and other land use issues.