What is Zoning?

what is zoning

What is zoning? Zoning dictates how property gets used. There are different categories that deal with everything from family neighborhoods to commercial zoning in industrial areas.

Zoning can do a number of different things. There are classifications that can affect a property owner, or zoning can restrict a construction company from building in certain areas.  It can even ban some types of property from being used for business.

It all started with a supreme court decision in 1926. The Village of Euclid versus Ambler Realty Co. established justification for zoning. This article will fill you in on everything you need to know as zoning pertains to commercial zones and family areas.

what is zoning

Zoning, a Quick Overview

In a nutshell, zoning is a way to describe land use. It’s all about urban planning. It’s the way the governments dictate how parcels get developed.

Zoning districts are designed so new developments don’t interfere with districts already in use. Zoning restrictions can limit commercial and industrial development. They can also restrict affordable housing in some instances.


Common Zoning Terms

  • Zoning regulations: Zoning regulations are specific about things like lot size and floor area ratio ( FAR) for buildings. These are important for building in urban areas. These also include maximum height requirements.
  • Zoning laws: These laws are specifically designed to divide parcels into zones. Basically, these laws dictate what type of buildings can exist in a municipality or city.
  • Ordinances: These are a legal framework comprised of maps that show different zoning districts. The text that comes with them details the uses they have and the type of structures that are in each of the districts.
  • Zoning classifications: Important for residential development and generally for land use. These can include residential uses, light industrial, agricultural, and a zoning classification for hotel/hospitality uses.
  • Zoning districts and overlays: These two terms work together. They can be used for planning scheme overlays for residential areas. Overlay zoning creates special districts.
  • Municipalities: This is the term for one area of government that divides up lands into zones. Like residential neighborhoods.

what is zoning

Different Types of Zoning Codes

Zoning codes are the rules for how a piece of property gets used. Like single-family residential zones and others for different types of development. The following are a few for specific neighborhoods, industrial, commercial and agricultural development.

Zoning CodeDescriptionExamples/Purposes
ResidentialFor housing developments, having different residential districts.Single-family homes, Apartment buildings
BusinessCommercial zones for various business types.Office buildings, Restaurants, Shopping centers
Industrial ZonesFor different intensities of industrial uses.Warehouses, Factories, Wholesale properties
Zoning For Mixed UsesCombines several land use options in one space.Provides affordable housing, Combining residential and business spaces

what is zoning


Residential zones are the heartbeat of any city or town, typically showcasing the diverse lifestyles and preferences of its inhabitants. These zones are often divided into various districts, each with a unique blend of housing types.

While one district might predominantly feature single-family homes ideal for larger families or those seeking more privacy, another might be dedicated to townhouses or duplexes, suitable for smaller households or those desiring community closeness.

Additionally, as cities grow and evolve, there is a move towards high-density housing solutions like apartment complexes or condos. These are especially common in city centers or areas with limited space.

Each of these housing types comes with specific rules and regulations, ensuring the integrity of the neighborhood and the well-being of its residents.


Business or commercial zones play a pivotal role in the economic landscape of a city. Falling under this category are spaces designated for a range of business-related activities.

This is where the hustle and bustle of commerce happens: towering office buildings housing corporate operations, cozy cafes offering a space for work and relaxation, or expansive shopping centers catering to the retail needs of the populace.

These zones are typically strategically located for ease of access, visibility, and to support the business ecosystem of the area.

Industrial Zones

Industrial zones are the powerhouse sectors in a city, dedicated to manufacturing, processing, and other industrial operations. Depending on the type of industry, these zones can vary.

For instance, heavy industry zones might accommodate large factories producing significant goods or machinery. Medium industries might involve smaller-scale manufacturing or assembly operations, while light industries could focus on crafts, artisanal products, or specialized goods.

Additionally, these zones cater to storage and distribution needs, offering spaces for warehouses or wholesale real estate properties. To ensure the safety and well-being of residents, these zones are carefully placed at a safe distance from primary residential areas.

Zoning For Mixed Uses

Embracing modern urban planning concepts, mixed-use zones are becoming increasingly popular. These zones are a fusion of residential, commercial, and sometimes even light industrial uses.

Within a single building or block, you might find ground-floor retail shops, mid-level office spaces, and upper-level apartments.

By integrating various functions, these developments aim to reduce commute times, foster community interaction, and offer a dynamic living experience.

Furthermore, they can be pivotal in promoting affordable housing solutions by maximizing land use efficiency.

The Purpose of Zoning Laws

Zoning laws serve as a blueprint for city development and urban planning. They exist primarily to ensure a harmonious and organized layout of cities and towns.

By establishing clear boundaries for how land and properties should be used, these laws make sure that potentially conflicting land uses, such as an industrial factory next to a school, are avoided.

The details and specifications laid out in zoning laws are meticulously crafted to address every potential aspect of land use.

Beyond just determining where certain structures and buildings can be placed, zoning laws have a broader role. They are critical tools for city planners, not just for shaping the current landscape but also for envisioning the future growth and changes in a city.

Both in the private and public sectors, these regulations provide a roadmap. Additionally, they can significantly influence economic factors, like property values, by determining the kind of activities or businesses that can operate in specific zones.

what is zoning

Who Controls Zoning Ordinances?

The reins of zoning ordinances typically lie in the hands of local governing bodies. It’s usually the local government or municipality that sets the tone for how a region develops. They are in the best position to understand the unique needs, challenges, and aspirations of their jurisdiction.

So, whether it’s about designating a green space for public recreation, earmarking a downtown area for commercial activities, or preserving a historical site, it’s the local authorities that take the call.

They hold the responsibility to ensure that zoning decisions cater to the best interests of the community, balancing economic growth with sustainable and responsible development.

How Zoning Laws Work

Here’s how these laws work. A zoning ordinance starts out with a master plan, which lay out the rules for land use.

  • A comprehensive plan comes next, with zoning maps.
  • A zoning ordinance is a next part. These are the details of how something like a residential neighborhood gets created.

These ordinances allow different zones to co-exist. But they are usually very specific. For example, some communities ban mobile homes on private land. So, make sure to always check before you proceed with any land use plans.

what is zoning

Zoning Law Restrictions and Your Business

Zoning rules can affect your business, but you can apply for a variance to suit your enterprise. Keep in mind that a zoning ordinance can change over time. These can vary depending on when a business changes hands. If you’re going to start on the ground floor, you need a building permit.

Keeping up to date on other regulations and bylaws is important. Check to make sure you are up to date on changes too. Additionally, there are issues you need to look at.

Whether you’re moving your business within a city or making a move on the national level. You might want to look for mixed-use zoning laws. That way a business and house can fill in open spaces.

For a business, there are also commercial use requirements. These include mandates for parking, the size of the building, and more.

Zoning and Small Business

For small businesses, understanding and navigating the zoning landscape is crucial. It determines where a business can operate and under what conditions. Here are key points to consider:

  • Identify Commercial Zoning Categories: Different zones, such as C-1 for small-scale retail or C-2 for general commercial use, have specific rules about the types of businesses allowed, building sizes, and parking requirements.
  • Research Before Leasing or Buying: Ensure the location aligns with your business type by conducting thorough zoning research or consulting with a zoning attorney.
  • Consider Future Business Needs: Think ahead about potential expansions, signage, and renovations to ensure the location will remain compliant with zoning laws.

Applying for Zoning Variances and Special Use Permits

When your business plan doesn’t fit within existing zoning laws, applying for a variance or special use permit may be necessary. Here’s how to approach it:

  • Understand the Difference: A variance allows deviation from certain zoning requirements, while a special use permit enables activities not usually permitted in the zone.
  • Prepare Your Application Carefully: Include detailed plans and justifications, showing how your business won’t harm the community.
  • Engage with the Community: Before the zoning board hearing, gather evidence supporting your case, anticipate community concerns, and consider enlisting a local zoning attorney.
  • Showcase Benefits: Demonstrate that your business will not negatively impact the neighborhood’s character or inconvenience residents.

Zoning Changes and Small Business Advocacy

Zoning laws are not static and can change in ways that affect small businesses. Staying proactive is essential:

  • Stay Informed: Regularly check local government websites and attend city council meetings to stay ahead of potential changes.
  • Engage in Advocacy: Join local business associations to have a stronger voice in influencing zoning changes that impact your business.
  • Build Your Case: Present well-researched arguments, share success stories, and mobilize community support to make a compelling case to zoning boards and local officials.
  • Contribute to the Community: Proposals that clearly benefit the community and local economy are more likely to be well-received.

By understanding zoning laws, preparing for variances or special use permits, and engaging in advocacy, small business owners can navigate zoning challenges more effectively, ensuring their businesses thrive in compliant and supportive environments.

How to Check Your Local Zoning Regulations

Local governments will fill you in. Here are a few steps to take.

  • Start with city zoning laws and see which ones might apply.
  • Then look for city, county, or municipal ordinances as they apply to land use.
  • Once you have some information call a municipal planning or a local building department.
  • You can also research other ordinances as they pertain to previous land use.

The Best Ways to Amend Zoning Regulations

Governments understand that many zoning designation laws can become dated. Generally, a small business or individual needs to apply for a rezoning.

The first step is to talk to somebody from a planning department.  They will tell you how to prepare. After that, an application can be filed for a zoning map amendment.

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Rob Starr Rob Starr is a staff writer for Small Business Trends and has been a member of the team for 7 years. He is a graduate of Ryerson University in Toronto with a Bachelor of Journalism degree. His print credentials include employment with various Toronto area newspapers and three works of fiction: The Apple Lady (2004), Creekwater (2006) and Sophistry By Degrees (2008) published by Stonegarden Press In California.