Zoning is an activity undertaken by a city or county to direct the land use in their jurisdiction.
Often times the zoning map goes with some sort of master plan to help direct development. Zoning helps keep commercial and residential uses in the areas where the city feels they would be most effective. Even a city that is currently made up of mostly farmland will have a master plan that indicates where future commercial and residential uses will go. In addition to commercial and residential uses that are also special zones for educational uses and other public amenities.
Zoning is all local
Zoning is a completely local creature. Different cities and counties use their planning and zoning departments in different ways. Over time, however, best practices seem to have emerged, and many cities have a very similar zoning structure. In theory there is an unlimited number of zoning conditions out there, but we will highlight just a few of the most common residential zoning structures.
Zoning conventions and common designations
The title for a given zone type is often given in three parts, each separated by a dash. The first part indicates the type, so an R for residential, C for Commercial, etc. The second part indicates the number. So, in residential the second number indicates if it is a single family or multi-family dwelling. Finally, the third number indicates the minimum lot size allowed.
For example, R-1-5000 is a designation used in more dense single family areas. As spoken of above, this zoning structure indicates a residential neighborhood with single family dwellings and a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet. Since an acre is 43,560 square feet, this lot size is the equivalent of .12 of an acre or so. In other words, these are very small lots.
Other typical residential single family zoning designations include:
R-1-7000 – single family on a minimum .16 acre lot
R-1-8000 – single family on a minimum .18 acre lot (about 1/5 of an acre)
R-1-10000 – single family on a minimum .23 acre lot (roughly 1/4 of an acre)
R-1-12000 – single family on a minimum .28 acre lot
Zoning fine print in the zoning ordinance
In addition to the general requirements that are indicated in the zoning designation, there are also a lot of specific requirements associated with each zone. For instance, your lot in a R-1-7000 area may be .16 acres, but if it does not have a certain minimum width then it is not buildable. There are also a number of setback requirements for each different type of zone. To figure out what these are you will want to go in to your local city's web site and see if they have a downloadable copy of their entire zoning ordinance.
Obtaining a variance
It is definitely possible to build something that isn't specifically allowed in the zoning ordinance. To do this you will need to obtain what is called a variance. The city's web site should give you details on the process you will need to go through in order to obtain a variance. In many instances as long as your new project is in keeping with the intent of the zoning code you will be able to obtain the variance. But don't bank on it, do your research during the due diligence period to make sure you don't purchase a property that you can't develop as you'd like to.