When getting started with an off grid property, often the first question you might have is, “What do zoning laws allow me to do with my property.” Often, this questions can be hard to answer. Follow along and I’ll share everything I’ve learned about sleuthing out zoning ordinances over the years.
How do I Find Zoning Laws for a Property?
- Determine the county and lot number of your property
- Search your county assessor’s records for assigned zoning
- Look up your zone in county ordinances
- If your land is incorporated, look up city ordinances
Although a relatively simple process, the relative difficulty of getting it done varies quite a bit from county to county. In the sections below, I’ll go in to each step in detail.
How Do Zoning Laws Work?
Zoning laws designate what various portions of land can be used for. In the United States, zoning laws are typically determined on the county level, and are assigned geographically.
Most counties choose to divide their zones in to several large categories:
- Other (special uses)
Within these categories, there are usually sub-categories such as “Rural Residential” and below that “Rural Residential 5”
In order to determine what is allowed in your property, you will need to go online or visit your county assessor’s office in person. Each lot should be assigned a code that designates the zoning law that applies in that area (for instance RR5). Then you will need to consult the county ordinances (typically found on the county website) and search for the section that applies to that specific zoning code.
If you live in a city, then the city government may have specified additional zoning regulations above that of the county. In that case you may have to repeat the same process by consulting the city government to determine your property’s use code, and then look up city ordinance for that code.
Cities vary quite a bit, and some may not apply their own zones, but instead apply additional restrictions based on existing county zoning designations. So, for example an R-1 property at the county level may also have city specific laws that apply to R-1 zones in the city.
Step 1 — How to Find the Lot Number of Your Property?
The first step to find your property’s zoning is to determine the county of the property and the lot number assigned to it by the county.
If own the property already you should already know this, as it will be written on the deed and other documentation you received while buying the property, such as the mortgage.
Otherwise, if the property as an assigned address, then you may be able to skip this step and look up the property directly on the county assessor’s website without the lot number. However, if you are looking at a property listing for raw land, be wary of any address provided, since sometime relators just make one up. Usually, lots without buildings to not have addresses assigned, since that often happens as part of the building permit process.
For land that you are just scoping out, you may need to scour the list to find the lot number. Depending on where you find the listing, it may be listed in the technical details like property size, near tax information (if any), written directly in the property description, on sometimes even written on a map shown in the photos of the property.
If you are not able to find the lot number and county on the listing, you may have to call the Realtor or seller directly to get that information. Although, sometimes sleuthing on google maps and the county GIS maps can help you find a property lot number just based on the description.
How to Find Your County Assessors Website
The next thing to do is to go to the county assessor office’s website of the county the property is located. To find the county assessor’s website, I usually just Google “county assessor xxxx county xxx state”. Usually it is the first result.
If you have trouble with this, try looking up your county’s website on the USA.gov list of Local Governments.
Step 2 — How to Search for Your Property on a County Assessor’s Website
Look around in the menus of the assessor’s website, or under the listing for it in Google search, for something along the lines of “search” or “parcel search”.
Search facilities vary quite a bit from website to website, and they are almost always not very intuitive. The easiest way is to copy the full parcel number in to the search box. Some sites have multiple search boxes, so make sure it goes in the right one. Be sure to read the directions provided, since usually searches have to be in a very specific form. Something as simple as not having dashes in the right spot can lead to “no results found.”
If you only know the address, try search in the “situs address” or “physical address” field. Be sure you put the address in the exact right format or it won’t work.
Step 3 — How to Find a Property’s Zone in the County Assessor’s Website
Once you get to the property record, double check that the data matches what you know from the listing:
- Property size
- Address (if provided)
- Photos (if provided)
If you are lucky, then the zoning class will be shown on this page right with the other property info.
In my example, I am not so lucky, and I will have to keep looking for the zoning information. When the zoning is not shown directly in the county assessors listing, it is often available on the county’s online map aka GIS system.
To get there I clicked on the “Map Sifter” link, or anything that looks “map” or “plat” related.
Map / GIS views offer a lot of data, but in this case I’m just interested in the zoning. I’ve seen it shown in two ways:
- A colored overlay
- A link in the parcel entry
In this case, there is a tiny link called “District Information”. When I click on this, I finally get the zoning designation.
You can see this parcel is in city limits, and zoned C1 for commercial.
If your county map viewer has a “layers” or “overlay” feature, which may just be an icon that looks like sheets of stacked paper, then look around in there for a zoning related layer. Turn on any layers like that you find, then click around on the map on the parcel you are search. There is usually some form of pop-up or information on the side of the screen that indicates the zone in that area.
Step 4 — Look Up Zoning Laws
The last step is to look up the specific regulations for the zoning code that you found in your county (and city if in side city limits) ordinances.
To find the laws for your county, I would search “your county name ordinances” or use your city, state name if that applies to you. For the example property above, I searched both the county and city codes. The county did not have anything about the C1 zone, which I believed to be reserved for city use, but the city codes have detail specifications about what is allowed on this lot.
What Do Zoning Laws Cover
Zoning laws typically regulate three areas, but may cover almost anything:
- Use. This includes things like, can you build a home there, can you run a business there (and if so what kind). Homesteaders and off gridders are often most interested in livestock restrictions, garden size restriction, and restrictions on commercial activity (if you plan to make a little money through a “cottage industry” like selling at a local farmers market.
- Density. Many residential and agricultural zones limit the number of units per acre. For instance, in one county I’ve seen RR-5 only allows one house per 5 acres of land, while AG-20 allows one farm house per twenty acres or more, but has no limit on dwelling for “farm labor”.
- Building Size / Placement. Codes may limit the maximum and minimum of buildings placed per lot in that area. They may also limit the total number of small outbuildings. Additionally, they usually specify “set backs” which is a minimum distance away from the edge of the property you have to place your buildings.
Can I Change a Property’s Zoning Category?
Essentially, the county government will take a map of their territory and color various areas by what they are allowed to be used for. This determination is often influenced by projections for future growth developed by the county, but is at it’s heart a political decision.
There are a number of ways to get the zoning laws changed in your area. One way is to ask the county government for a “special use permit”. This usually just means filling out a form explaining what you want to use the property for and paying an application fee. If the county government approves your permit, that means they made a specific exception to county code, as written in the permit itself. Any activity that is not allowed by zoning law and not specifically excused by a special use permit would require another special use application.
Another method to change a property’s zoning is to ask the county commission directly for the zone of the property to be amended. Each county has their own method of conducting business, so in some cases you may be able to petition the commission directly during one of their public meetings, and in others you may have to request a specific time in advance, or even submit you request in writing. Consult your county government for more information.
What Do Zoning Laws Regulate?
Zoning laws typically regulate:
- Use. What type of business activity is allowed
- Density. The number of dwelling or businesses allowed on a lot
- Building Size / Placement. Minimum “setback” from property lines and sometimes maximum building size
What Happens If I Don’t Follow Zoning Laws?
If discovered by city officials, you will receive a notice and may have a chance to appeal or file a legal suit. If found in error, you may be required to fix the infraction and/or pay a fine. Failure to do so may result in forfeiture of property, a lien, or a criminal proceeding resulting in potential jail time.