The Basics Of North Carolina Zoning And Land Use Rules

Zoning and land use implicate the rights and interests of property owners, the government, and the general public. Counties and cities throughout North Carolina enact ordinances that set zoning rules and limit how land may be used. If you own or are planning to purchase commercial real property, it is imperative that you understand how these rules work. Failure to abide by them could jeopardize your business or result in unnecessary fines and legal problems. These are a few of the basic facts about land use and zoning law in North Carolina.

Both zoning and land use generally govern how a particular piece of land may be used, including what types of structures and businesses are allowed to operate on it. Zoning may be thought of as a type of land use, and is often concerned with existing lots of land. Land use, on the other hand, usually involves future land developmental plans. The two concepts overlap each other in many places and are frequently used interchangeably.

The purpose of zoning is to categorize land to determine what general uses may be permitted on it. Land is typically zoned for residential, commercial, or industrial use. Within each of these zones, there may be further divisions. As an example, a piece of land zoned for commercial use may only permit the operation of certain types of businesses. There also may be specific rules concerning setbacks from streets and adjacent boundaries. Some of these rules can be extremely detailed, depending on the location.

Zoning can be a controversial issue because it can impact the surrounding areas through externalities such as increased traffic or pressure on infrastructure. Disputes often arise when proposals are made to rezone the property from one type to another. These are examples of controversies that arise specifically within the context of commercial zoning:

  • The amount of parking allowed on the property
  • How traffic may be impacted and whether new traffic signs or signals will be necessary
  • The need for additional infrastructure to accommodate the property
  • Noise, pollution, and other nuisances, especially when a piece of commercial land is near a residential or recreational area
  • Whether the setback is sufficient to avoid a “cluttered” look
  • How a commercial development may affect the historical or cultural nature of the area
  • Whether a proposed development will attract crime
  • Signage and advertising that is permitted (or not) on the property

One of the most important things a prospective owner of commercial land needs to know is how the property is zoned. The type of business the owner has in mind for the property may not even be permitted. In that case, the current owner of the land may wish to petition the local government to have the property rezoned for another use.

Zoning may involve the government in several ways. The local government will need to conduct a hearing, for example, to consider rezoning the property. An unhappy landowner or resident may appeal a zoning decision. The municipality also enforces zoning ordinances against non-compliant landowners. In still other matters, the government may inspect new commercial construction to ensure it complies with applicable laws and regulations.

Land use is intimately related to zoning but may involve much broader considerations. Municipalities, for instance, typically create master plans for how land is to be used within a given area in the future. While this plan will likely touch on zoning matters, it will also take other issues into consideration such as street plans, public facilities, building regulations, and more.

Together, land use and zoning affect both current and prospective commercial landowners in the following ways (among others):

  • Violations of local ordinances, fines, and related legal action
  • Lawsuits, with the commercial landowner as either the plaintiff or defendant
  • Advising current owners regarding plans for their property that might conflict with local ordinances
  • Advising prospective owners on existing ordinances so they can plan accordingly
  • Hearings and appeals for rezoning petitions

Our law firm can assist with these and many other matters.

Do you have questions about how zoning and land use rules could affect your commercial operation? Are you interested in purchasing land or a business but want to understand the local ordinances first? Have you been named as a defendant in a lawsuit, or do you need to take legal action as a plaintiff? Patrick, Harper & Dixon, LLP, is here for you. Contact us today.