Real Estate Investing Basics

7 Steps to Rezoning Any Property: A General How-To

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Allison here at BiggerPockets throws ideas at us for blog posts all the time. One of her recent ideas was “How to Rezone Your Lot.” Because I studied these things in college and my last “real” job was a planning director, I thought I would tackle this one.

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What is Zoning?

First, let me explain what zoning is. Zoning is a set of laws that control land use. The primary function of zoning is to regulate what can be done with a piece of property. Zoning dictates where various land use activities, such as residential, commercial or industrial can be located. Zoning can regulate many other things as well, such a density, height, yard setbacks, etc. However, the use of the land is the primary concern.

Why Change The Zoning?

The main reason to change zoning is because you see an opportunity. What opportunities are there? It could be to develop a residential subdivision. It could be to build an apartment building. It could be to convert a house into an office. It could be a myriad of other things. The opportunity you see, however, may not be permitted under the current zoning law. Thus, you’ll have to petition to have that law changed.

How Do You Change Zoning?

Changing zoning can be difficult and costly. You might think that changing zoning is as simple as 1, 2, 3.  It is not. Actually, it can be a really complicated process depending on where your property is located. It can also be pretty costly, and there are no guarantees that you will get what you ask for. Be aware of these facts going in.

The difficulty and costliness arise, in part, because there are no standard zoning laws. Every city, every town, and every county that has zoning can make up their own unique rules and processes. Even cities right next door to each other can have widely varying zoning laws. Changing zoning is also a political process. There are public hearings and you have to get legislative approval. The political process can be quite costly — and ugly.

Because every place is different, I can only write in very general terms for how to go about changing the zoning of your property. There is simply no way any article could cover it all.

In general, here is what you need to do if you’re thinking about trying to change the zoning on your property.

Related: Zoning: A Primer for Real Estate Investors

1. Look Around Your Property

Are things changing around you? Have circumstances changed? Is there population growth? A new road or sewer line that has changed local dynamics? You, as the petitioner, have to justify your proposed change. Just because you want it done is often not enough. Some locales will give great deference to your rights as a property owner, but many will not, and they will be quite restrictive. It is best, therefore, to be able to justify your request with changing conditions.

2. Learn the Local Rules

Go online and read the rules. Find out what your current zoning is, and what you currently can and cannot do. Then, go talk to the local planning department. You do not have to be very specific in the beginning if you do not want to be. But be aware that the staff can hold great sway in the days to come. They will be reviewing and making recommendations on your zoning request. So put your best foot forward.

3. Talk to Your Neighbors

If anything is going to stop you, it’s them. Best to talk to them upfront about what your plans are and hash out any concerns they may have. They will most likely get notified anyway, so do not think you can keep things under the radar. You want to make things as smooth as possible for the planning staff and elected officials who will eventually vote on your request. Remember, however, that you cannot please everyone. Some are going have a nimby attitude all the time, every time. But you have to try.

4. Apply

The planning staff will have the necessary forms and will be able to help and guide you here. Be sure to provide everything the planning department requests, which can be a lot. It may include surveys, maps, traffic studies, mailing labels, etc. And do not forget that you will need a check too. How much? That depends on the locale. Bet on at least several hundred if not several thousand dollars.

5. Staff Analysis

The planning staff is going to review your request and develop an analysis and recommendation for the local planning commission and legislative body. You need to be as much a part of this analysis as you can be. Be there and help out. Provide everything and anything they ask for with a smile. Meet them at the property. Show them exactly what you want to do. Tell them how you have already met with the neighbors and adjusted your plans accordingly. Listen to their arguments and concerns. Revise your plans to meet those concerns if you can.

6. Planning Commission Meeting

Once the planning staff has completed its analysis, your request goes to the planning commission (or some similar body) so they can make a recommendation to the local governing body. This is a public meeting that will be advertised. You need to be there to make your case and to answer any questions or concerns. Hopefully you will get you a positive recommendation, but you do not necessarily need one to go forward.

7. Legislative Body Meeting

Finally, your case goes before the local legislative body for a public hearing and vote. You will have the opportunity to speak. Go and do so. Make your case. If the vote goes your way, you are good to go. If not, you may need to wait at least a year before trying again.

How long does the process take? Depends on the jurisdiction, the rules, and how complicated your request is. For something simple, it will take at least a couple of months — but six months to a year is not unheard of.

Other Considerations

The above 7 steps are generalized and very simplified. There are, however, a few other things you may want to consider when thinking about changing zoning on your property.

Watch out for Restrictive Covenants

No matter what the zoning allows, restrictive covenants win. If you spend the time and money to get a property rezoned for office use but the covenants do not allow it, you will lose. I’ve seen it happen. Not every property is subject to restrictive covenants, however. Know if you are subject to them, and know what they allow before going forward.

Related: Investing in Historic Districts: What You Should Know About Zoning & Regulations

As I Mentioned, Zoning is Political

Politics can do strange things. Understand that politicians do not always make decisions based on what is right or what is best for the property owner. They make political decisions. If your request is going to create a political battle, it may be best to wait and try again later. Say, after the election is over.

You May Want To Hire A Consultant To Guide You Through the Process

Because zoning can be a complicated and a political process, you could benefit from hiring someone who understands the political turf. Although costly, these people may be absolutely necessary and well worth the expense.

Why go through this process?

Changing zoning can be very profitable. Understanding the zoning process can be another arrow in your real estate quiver. You may see and create opportunities that others will miss.

I know this is a very general discussion, but it has to be due to the nature of zoning.

Do you have specific questions? Ask them in the comments below!

Kevin Perk is co-founder of Kevron Properties, LLC with his wife Terron and has been involved in real estate investing for 10 years. Kevin invests in ...
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    John Bierly Rental Property Investor from Bainbridge Island, WA
    Replied over 2 years ago
    Speaking as a developer going through this on two properties… in most jurisdictions, there will be something called a “Comprehensive Plan”, a “Long Range Plan”, or something along those lines. If the rezone you are seeking conforms with the comp plan (for instance, its single family now, but is viewed as multifamily in the comp plan) a rezone can be somewhat straightforward. However, if your proposed rezone would require changing the comp plan, it is a much more difficult process. This is the first question I would ask and if the answer is that it requires a change to the comp plan I personally would walk away – too much time and odds of a successful outcome are too low.
    Kevin Perk Rental Property Investor from Memphis, TN
    Replied over 2 years ago
    John, Very good point. Thanks for bringing it up. Many places will have some sort of plan, especially if they are located in states such as Florida that mandate one. If what you want to do follows the plan, you are often well on your way. So asking if there is a plan and finding out what it contains is not a bad idea. And yes, if you think trying to change zoning is complicated and political, try changing a comprehensive plan in Florida. However…. I would question if most jurisdictions have such a plan. And if they do have one, does it just sit on the shelf gathering dust? Most states are not like Florida. Here in Tennessee for example there is a provision in the state statutes for plans to be made prior to zoning being enacted. But if you go around and ask for these plans in many places you will be met with blank stares. Other times the plans are so old and outdated that they are useless. Or, if they do exist they are ignored. So there may or may not be plans. If there are, they may be completely useless or ineffective. It will just depend on where you are. Perhaps a better generic question to ask the planning staff is “What will you base your recommendation on?” If there is a plan of some sort they will tell you. If not, they will tell you that as well. Then you can go from there. Thanks for reading and for adding to the discussion. Good luck with your developments, Kevin
    Barry H. Investor from Scottsdale, AZ
    Replied over 2 years ago
    As a former municipal govermnent Risk Manager who interfaced with Planning/Zoning fairly regulary, this is an excelent “101-level” review of this subject. As a lender and investor (now) – I look back and see how frustrated entrepreneurs, developers and investors must become with buraucracies – government is generally not very productive and moves slowly. This article prepares you for that… veeeeeery patient. 🙂
    Kevin Perk Rental Property Investor from Memphis, TN
    Replied over 2 years ago
    Barry, Thanks for the kind words and for reading. It is interesting to be on the other side now isn’t it? Zoning can be a very political and convoluted process as you and I both allude to. Zoning, as with any other regulation, creates a power center that people will try to influence and manipulate. These could be politicians, consultants who get paid fees, other property owners or neighborhood and environmental groups. People need to realize that anytime they ask for a rezoning they are potentially bringing all of these groups into play and focused on one thing, you. Know what you are getting into and understand that things could move painfully slow. Thanks again for reading and for commenting, Kevin
    Patrick Liska Investor from Verona, New Jersey
    Replied over 2 years ago
    Kevin, Very good article on the basics of understanding the process for a zoning change. I am a Contractor a member of my towns Zoning board of adjustments and an investor that just went through the process of rezoning a building in another state. knowing the whole process is a big plus when you want to get this done, i did exactly you you shared in this article, the town asked me to be at a meeting, even though it wasn’t zoning, i was there ( 3 hr trip there) and it pays off to be there, they see who you are and you answer every question they have, it helps, do not think the process is one meeting and it is over, there are meetings before hand, the zoning meeting, and usually a meeting with the town council, it is a process to get properties rezoned. your information on checking the towns master plan / comprehensive plan is right on as well, this did help me as well, but do not stop at the towns own plan, check the counties own plans ( this helped me), you go to these meeting ready with information to answer questions and to show that you know the area, it will help in impressing them.
    Michael Cheatham Investor from Indianapolis, IN
    Replied 4 months ago
    Thanks for this information, it is was very helpful. I have a question, I am looking at a project that is zoned SU and SV, it's former use was a Convent and a Church/School. I would like to turn the property into apartments but the current area is D4 (which is single family or duplex. The buildings are in a state of major disrepair and it is unlikely that a church or school will purchase the buildings. Any ideas on the possibility of getting a re-zoning approved and the best argument to make? This is in Indianapolis.