Common Commercial Zoning Issues

Zoning is a control tool utilized by municipalities to govern the specific uses of individual tracts of land. By designating specific land areas as commercial, industrial, and residential properties, the Government Entities attempt to bring balance into their community, while also protecting property values for each specific area.  Zoning issues can arise when a party seeks to utilize a specific piece of land for a purpose beyond the specific zone in which it is located. Such issues can involve businesses, land developers, homeowners, and local city governments.

Zoning laws are complex, and unique to each municipality, so it is always best to contact a lawyer if an issue involving zoning laws is anticipated in any land purchase, building, or remodeling project.

What is Zoning?

The purpose of zoning is to create an effective distribution of land use within privately owned real estate areas. A zone is proposed by the state, which is then passed by a city or local municipality. To challenge a designated zone, an individual must show that the zoning ordinance is causing direct, adverse effects. Zones are implemented in the following land areas:

Residential Land Use: Single-family, mobile, suburban homes, and other residential estates are subject to zoning regulations. Residential zoning regulations can include whether or not a person can own a home-based business.

Industrial Land Use: Industrial ordinances are specific to a business, such as noise and environmental issues.

Commercial Land Use: This ordinance dictates what type of business can be on the land, such as warehouses, offices, hotels, and shopping malls.

Agricultural Land Use: An agricultural-based zoning regulation defines non-farm and farm areas on the land.

Rural Land Use: This is a land area that can be used by farmers and ranchers.

Historic Land Use: A historical land zoning ordinance protects historical properties and structures. Other types of construction cannot be used in this zone.

Esthetic Zoning: Color schemes, landscaping, and other aesthetically pleasing features are established by esthetic zoning regulations. This is most commonly seen in residential areas.

Permitted and Accessory Uses: These uses exist when there is an accessory or extension to a property. An accessory is meant to enhance a property within the zone, such as a bar attached to a hotel or a garage connected to a house.

It is important to note that there are also subdivisions within each category. For instance, specific regulations might be linked to single-family homes in the residential land use zoning ordinance. There are many elements to keep in mind when looking to build a business on land. Given the varying and complex nature of zoning laws and ordinances, it is often beneficial to contact an attorney prior to commencing a real estate purchase if your desired use for the property raises any questions with regard to the area in which the property is zoned.

What Happens with Zoning Disputes?

When commercial buildings are close to residential homes, a variety of issues may arise, especially with regard to zoning ordinances. Municipalities will often have in place zoning ordinances which deal with air and water pollution and loud noise that could affect neighbors. Parking in the commercial area may also present an issue with regard to its placement and maintaining appropriate distance from the residential homes. Other common zoning ordinances to consider are those regulating signage, trash, and obstruction of views. Before building a commercial property, it is wise to consult with a lawyer about the zoning areas and laws that may apply, as well as whether any variances or special exceptions can be obtained to move forward with the project.

A setback is another common commercial zoning problem. This term refers to a minimum distance that buildings are permitted to be located from property lines. Setbacks can be used to keep buildings certain distances from roadways for safety reasons and to prevent overcrowding. Two main goals of a setback are to allow proper ventilation and sunlight within a zone.

What can Zoning Ordinances Do?

According to Pennsylvania law, zoning ordinances are in place to do the following:

  • Promote the growth of industries and organizations.
  • Prevent overcrowding in an area (including controlling of traffic and overpopulation of businesses).
  • Protect homeowners and corporations alike.
  • Zoning preserves farmland.

A zoning violation can create significant issues for individuals and companies alike. If a commercial business or another entity does not adhere to the zoning ordinances, the financial penalties can be severe. Typically, a court will notify the offender about the violation and designate a reasonable amount of time to remedy the problem. If the commercial entity does not fix the violation, they are subject to fines and may have to halt or end production. The costs associated with reversing these issues can be substantial, so it is always best to contact a lawyer at the outset of a major renovation or construction to ensure that due consideration is afforded to the specific and unique zoning ordinances of the municipality in which you are building.

How are Commercial versus Residential Zoning Issues Handled?

In some cases, an individual will attempt to solve a zoning dispute on their own by contacting the alleged offending party. If the response is not satisfactory, a claim may be filed with the local government’s zoning board who may intervene. Alternatively, a zoning violation may also lead to the filing of a lawsuit, especially if there are claims of discrimination in matters where a large group of people are impacted. If discrimination is suspected in a case that impacts a large group of people within an area, a class action lawsuit may be filed, but such suits can easily be avoided at the outset of a project if the appropriate legal questions are considered, and where appropriate, an impact study is conducted.

When Do Commercial Properties Violate Zoning Laws?

Commercial zoning laws regulate, among other things, setbacks, distances from other structures, building sizes, and heights. However, business owners have options if the property they are interested in is not zoned for commercial use. Depending on the type of use, business owners can apply for a variance, special exception, or conditional use as the situation requires. After such an application, a presentation is made to the municipality’s zoning hearing board, or board of supervisors, and an opportunity for questions and comments is afforded. In these situations, it is beneficial to have a legal professional assisting with the application and hearings to ensure all appropriate evidence is compiled and presented to the presiding board members.

Even if the zoning board is unwilling to grant an exception to the municipality’s zoning ordinances, a court appeal of the determination may be an appropriate avenue worth pursuing. This process can be time consuming but depends on individual circumstances. For example, if the company has fulfilled all of the board’s requirements and an official will not approve it, a government agency may have to step in. In other cases, court injunctions will order one party to cease their unlawful or illegal activities.

How can a Lawyer Remedy the Violation?

Commercial business owners should thoroughly review zoning laws before trying to establish property in an area, especially if it is close to residential homesteads. Problems most often arise when businesses set up close to neighborhoods and residents have concern over environmental impact, increase in noise or traffic, and property values.

Business owners can avoid legal problems and costly fines related to zoning issues by speaking to a lawyer beforehand. A lawyer who is knowledgeable about a municipality generally, and its zoning laws, can assist in choosing the appropriate course of action, and avoiding potential disputes and fines on the back end. If property is already up and running and a commercial business is facing complaints or allegations of a zoning violation, a lawyer can assist with this as well. Plaintiffs have a steep burden to prove that the commercial business should not exist, and they must also go through a lengthy process to end production; however, they may still prove a case that requires some modifications or remedies on the part of the business. With the right legal team, business owners can protect themselves against such complaints and alleged zoning violations.

If you were involved in any type of zoning disagreement or have any questions about zoning ordinances in a specific municipality or generally, the experienced legal team at MacMain Leinhauser can help. We are familiar with zoning laws and can offer legal guidance to bring any issues to a swift resolution. For a confidential consultation, complete our online form or call 484-318-7106. Located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, we serve clients throughout the greater Philadelphia area, including Delaware County, Montgomery County, Chester County, and New Jersey.