The Homeowner’s Guide to Land Use Laws

By Stephanie Reid, Avvo attorney and NakedLaw contributor

Land use law is a huge library of legal doctrine dating back centuries, covering everything from water and mineral rights to real estate planning and zoning. But how do these laws impact the average urban, suburban or rural homeowner, and what sort of liability could someone face if they accidentally or purposefully violated local land use laws?

What exactly is land use law?

The term refers to the body of real estate law that regulates the development and conservation of privately owned land. Government properties are not subject to land use restrictions.

Land use laws are controversial because the U.S. Constitution guarantees our liberty, which has always been interpreted to include the free use and control of one’s land. However, land use regulations have become increasingly necessary to curtail the environmental impact of growing populations, and to maintain order in certain urban and suburban areas.

What is an example of a land use law?

While many land use regulations are complex, interwoven labyrinths of local, state and federal laws, planning and zoning legislation is one type of land use law familiar to most people. These laws ensure that businesses are built in one area, residences in another — and that gentlemen’s clubs stay on the outskirts of town.

Are land use laws different from deed restrictions?

Land use laws are imposed by the government, whereas deed restrictions are defined by community associations. However, the two sets of laws can, and should, overlap on common issues, with deed restrictions possibly imposing greater regulations than the local government.

A violation of local land use laws could result in criminal fines or penalties, while a deed restriction violation is a purely civil matter.

What should urban residents know about farming and land use regulation?

Urban farming has become a hot topic within the realm of land use law, and local zoning laws are of significant importance when planning an urban farm. Depending on the location and size, an urban farm may be as small as a patio garden or as large as a city block, and it may encompass both produce and animal production.

The first type of zoning ordinance an urban farmer should consider pertains to the commercial aspect of urban farming. In other words, can the urban farmer sell crops, meat or eggs for money and, if so, where?

Secondly, farmers must be aware of zoning regulations related to raising animals, primarily those rules concerning neighborhood safety, noise ordinances and cleanliness standards.

Every local jurisdiction maintains its own unique set of zoning laws and conditional exceptions to those laws. For urban farmers interested in starting a community project, the first step is to meet with the local zoning and planning board to present your ideas and determine whether urban farming is feasible in your neighborhood.

Am I allowed to add a mother-in-law suite to my home?

A mother-in-law suite, or an accessory dwelling unit, will likely require a permit from the local municipality prior to construction. In many jurisdictions, this suite is actually considered a separate dwelling unit and, as such, requires issuing notice to the community prior to assembly. While some jurisdictions require a simple explanation of the proposed building, others need to see official building plans prior to approval.

Failure to obtain the proper permit to add an accessory dwelling unit can result in major fines — up to $500 per day or more — for each day the building remains unapproved.

What does the term ‘attractive nuisance’ mean?

An attractive nuisance is any sort of structure, manmade or natural, on your property that may entice children to trespass and play, putting them at risk of injury.

To avoid injuries, many localities have enacted attractive nuisance ordinances to prevent landowners from leaving swimming pools, ponds, trampolines or other known attractions open for danger.

Nuisance abatement ordinances generally impose common-sense regulations on homeowners, including mandatory fencing around pools, safety measures around wells or excavations, and rules against abandoned or vacant buildings.

What are the penalties for ignoring land use laws?

For violators of land use laws, local governments can impose daily fines ranging from a few dollars to several hundred dollars. If the violation presents a major safety issue for neighboring residents, the city may also seek an injunction, or legal order, against the property owner.

If fines and penalties add up past a certain point, the city may initiate a civil lawsuit against the homeowner, which could result in the loss of the property by government reclamation — a drastic, but realistic outcome in certain circumstances.

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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

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