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Legal uses of property in a specific geographical location.


Zoning refers to the control of land use for the purpose of promoting a city’s overall health, welfare, and economic development.

Zoning laws prevent or promote specific types of land use and their development, including the maximum amount permitted in certain areas. These laws also map out land use.

The various categories of land use include:





mixed use

public use


Zoning categories are described through a system of letters and numbers. For example, residential is categorized as “R”, commercial as “C”, and industrial as “I”. These letters usually have a corresponding number which indicates the amount of units that can be built, their use, and the maximum permitted square footage size.

For example, an “R-2” means that a property is zoned as a residential unit and can have up to two separate units.

Zoning laws may also limit the types of structures that can be built. It does this by providing standards for square footage, height, safety codes, parking, alley ways, entrances, side entrances and other factors.

Zoning laws are implemented by a city or county’s Planning Department. The Department is responsible for balancing public welfare with the rights of individual property owners. It must constantly reevaluate land use as a city’s population grows and conditions change.

The Planning Department also has police power, which means it has the ability to claim eminent domain over a property owner’s land.

Rezoning means changing zoning policy.

Downzoning alters an area’s land use to be less dense and/or developed. More simply, it “downsizes” an area.

For example, a city may rezone an area with large apartment buildings in order to rebuild the area with smaller single-family homes and businesses. The city planning office may utilize new zoning laws to prevent overgrowth of cities.

Upzoning refers to when a city changes zoning laws in order to develop higher value and/or more dense land use. For example, upzoning may change an area from industrial use to residential.

Alterations to existing zoning laws must be disputed in public hearings so as to provide the public — including property owners, tenants, and businesses — with an opportunity to express their views. A court has the ability to override a Planning Department’s zoning laws if they are deemed overly burdensome to the public. However, a property owner can only bring legal suit after he or she has attempted to change a zoning law through public hearings and other methods of appeal.

There has never been a successful prosecution in the State of California for zoning-related damages. Federal courts generally disagree with the state regarding compensation, however. Therefore, a plaintiff has a better chance of being awarded zoning-related damages in cases that are brought to the federal level.

Case Law As It Relates to Zoning

Case Review: Southern Burlington NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel (1975)

The case, Southern Burlington NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel (1975) 67 N.J. 151., involved a dispute regarding a restrictive zoning requirement.

A town (Mount Laurel) had restrictive zoning measures, including building size requirement and minimum lot square footage. The town claimed these restrictive measures were created to promote the ecological health of the town. A civil rights organization (Southern Burlington NAACP) alleged that it was impossible for poor income households to adhere to such restrictive requirements and thus, they were being denied access to living in the town. They sued the city.

The case went to the New Jersey Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the NAACP, indicating that ecological or environmental reasons was not a valid reason to limit single family housing.