Consequences of Violating Zoning Laws

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jun 29, 2022

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When the local zoning agency determines the property owner has violated the local zoning laws, the violator can suffer serious consequences for noncompliance. Suppose, that in a strictly residential area, the homeowner adds an extra back room in the house to operate a massage business. Even if neighbors don’t notice the illegal business activity, when the homeowner later decides to sell, he or she cannot guarantee the property is “up to code”, and runs the risk of being forced to accept a reduced price or withdraw the home from the market. Even if ownership has changed hands since the illegal construction, if it comes to the attention of the local authorities, perhaps through a tax assessment, the new owner can be ordered to pay a fine, and be required to comply with the zoning regulations, which may mean being forced to tear down the illegal construction.

Purpose of Zoning Laws

Zoning laws help local agencies plan the physical development and use of real property in the entire municipality. Zoning preserves property values and makes cities and towns better places to live. Localities typically divide their jurisdictions into segments called “zones” on which particular types of use are permitted. For example, one area of a town might be zoned for residential use, one nearby may be zoned for commercial use, and areas on the outskirts of town may be zoned for industrial use. Without zoning laws, a business might be able to purchase a parcel next to a home and build an incompatible structure which the owner operates at all hours of the day and night. Zoning laws also protect businesses that engage in nonresidential land use by making sure they can conduct their business without interference from neighboring landowners. Besides restricting the uses of real property, zoning laws regulate the density allowed on a property, the intensity of use, number of parking spaces determined by the use, how parking spaces are surfaced, fencing, setback requirements, signage, home occupations, and landscaping.

Requesting Changes in Zoning

A property owner may request a change in the zoning of his real property by filing an application with his local zoning board. His variance request to deviate from the current zoning requirements would allow the property owner to use his land in a manner ordinarily not permitted by the current zoning ordinance.  A variance is not a change of the property’s zoning, but it is a waiver of a certain zoning requirement. Zoning procedures mandate notice to nearby property owners for the requested change and public hearings to obtain feedback from the community. Heated comments may follow if the change in use is not desired and opponents believe it will have a negative impact on their property values. The proposed change may even be seen as posing a threat to the health and safety of the neighborhood. 

Consequences of Zoning Violations

Violating the local zoning laws can cause serious financial damage to the offender.  The violator may suffer civil penalties and even be required to remove the illegal structure or addition at a significant cost. A criminal proceeding may impose fines or even imprisonment for the offense. The local zoning agency may refuse to issue future permits to the offender. The owner may be forced to sell the property for less than its fair market value or not be able to sell it at all when the offender cannot assure a possible buyer that the property will conform to existing zoning laws.

Zoning Violation Resolution

A property owner will usually appeal an unfavorable zoning agency decision that his property violates the local zoning laws. Usually, the property owner must exhaust the administrative process by appealing to the agency before a lawsuit is filed. The owner can also seek a permit for a conditional use or a variance, which would make the violating use allowable. The agency in charge of zoning may allow this in special circumstances. For example, the owner buys property that is already in violation of zoning laws as a result of the prior owner not disclosing this offense before close of escrow. As a result, the current owner is not at fault for the property’s current zoning violations.

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