Zoning and Use

 By Karen Catuogno, Broker/Owner, Abbott Properties LLC  

            One of the biggest factors that determine what you can do with your property is zoning. 

Zoning is a set of local laws or regulations that dictate how property can and cannot be used in a certain geographic area.   Cities and towns, as well as its residents, are always concerned about the orderly development of its land, which is the reason for zoning.  By dividing up by zones, everyone can be reasonably assured about what is likely to happen with the land near to them.  

            Zoning and “use” are concepts that go hand in hand.  Zoning is the designation.  Use is the things you can actually do in the zone.  All cities and towns maintain zoning maps to tell you the zone designation.  They also maintain lists or tables of “use” that explain what you can and cannot do in a particular zone.

            What is the purpose of zoning?  In very simple terms, it makes sure things that belong together stay together.   Think Mary Smith, who bought that vacant parcel on a lake and built her beautiful dream home.  Can Big Gas Company buy that 20 acre vacant parcel next door to build a supersized 20 pump truck stop for long haul truckers?  Probably not.   Mary will be protected by local zoning ordinances that will limit what can go into this area while Big Gas Company will be allowed to build its complex in an area that’s better suited for that purpose.

            While the types and number of zones can vary from municipality to municipality, they generally fall into similar categories.  Residential zones are where people live, and can be divided up into small sub-zones that separate out single family from multi-family units.  Business zones, where you see restaurants, gas station, stores and offices, are separate zones.  Industrial is also a special category that puts heavy duty uses like manufacturing into their own areas.  Each of these zones can be divided in smaller type zones, depending on the size and location of the municipality.  And municipality with bodies of water, farms and other special features can have special zones, like waterfront and agricultural.

            In many cities and towns, what people actually use the land for can sometimes seem inconsistent with the designated zone.  That family market on the street level with the apartment upstairs doesn’t fit in with the designated business zone. It’s probably allowed to exist because the apartment existed before the area was zoned business.  When that happens, it’s called a “pre-existing, non-conforming use”. 

            Zoning is not usually a big concern for most people buying a house. Look around the neighborhood and you can probably guess the zone.  But it can be.  If you want to buy that big old mansion and divide it into four units, be sure to check that the residential zone allows more than one unit.  When in doubt or if you have questions, check with your local zoning office.

            Zoning is a bigger concern for people looking for property for business use.  The “look around” approach doesn’t work here, because even though an area might “look” right for business, not every type of business is permitted in every type of business zone.

            For example, Main Street Everytown is a beautiful oceanfront town and is lined from end to end with all types of restaurants, specialty stores, and coffee shops.   John thinks it’s a perfect place to open a tattoo business.  Can that happen?  John should not automatically assume yes just because everything on Main Street is a business.  The list of permitted uses in that particular zone may limit what type of businesses can open in this area.  If John’s tattoo business isn’t on the list, he can’t open there. He may have to look in an area off of Main Street.   The same is true with vacant land.  A developer may think that 20 acre parcel is the perfect place to build 15 new houses.  But if the land is in a residential zone that requires 4 acres per house, he’s out of luck. 

            It’s always important to work with an experienced agent when buying residential property.  It’s absolutely critical if you are buying for a business use.  The residential and commercial agents at Abbott Properties are experienced with zoning issues and will get you the right answers.

Government Rules and Your Property” is a series that explores how federal, state and local laws and rules affect your property.

Karen Catuogno is a commercial and residential broker licensed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. She maintains, develops and grows business at the agency as it relates to sales and listings. She also works to recruit agents, in talent development and leads the agency’s marketing program. Karen is a retired attorney.

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