Zoning and Land Use Law
What is zoning?
Zoning is the legal regulation by cities and counties of property and how property can be used. The local government adopts a code or ordinance that controls all aspects of the location, size, height, and use of land and any buildings or improvements on the land.
While virtually every town and city has zoning laws, the same is not true for counties in Tennessee. There are many counties that have no zoning laws applicable to areas that lie outside of a city limits. If you do not know whether your area has zoning or not, call or visit either the city hall or county mayor’s office and ask. Many towns and counties have the zoning regulations available online.
Who enforces the zoning and how?
Usually the local government has a zoning administrator who is responsible for enforcing the regulations. Many locations require a zoning permit or approval at the time a building permit or business license is applied for. The administrator usually can issue “stop work” orders or may even start legal proceedings against someone who is violating the zoning laws. In most jurisdictions it is a misdemeanor to violate the zoning laws, and so in some situations property owners can face criminal charges. Sometimes the city or county attorney will become involved and may file for an injunction.
It is possible for private citizens to sue to enforce zoning laws as well.
Do private property owners have any rights?
As a private property owner, you certainly have rights, but you must act to protect those rights. Usually the local government’s zoning regulations are lengthy, confusing, and difficult to read unless and until you become familiar with the various terms and provisions. They typically are drafted by some “expert consultant,” and may contain provisions that are ambiguous or even contradictory.
Our experience is that the government does not understand or even follow its own regulations, because they are so complicated and convoluted. If you have a problem or dispute that involves the zoning of your property, or neighboring property, it will likely be worth the time, trouble, and minimal expense for at least a consultation.
What are restrictive covenants?
These are private regulations, usually adopted and imposed upon property by the original developer. They are usually subject to being enforced by either the individual lot owners or a homeowner’s association. These regulations and restrictions pertain to a specific development. The government usually will not enforce these. Property can be subject to both public zoning laws and private restrictive covenants as well.