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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!