When purchasing a property, building a structure or making changes or improvements mapto one, it is essential to pay particular attention to local zoning regulations and zoning rights attached to the land. Zoning is important to regulate the construction details of any project.

What is Zoning?

The purpose of zoning is to control private land use for the common good, weighing a private property owner’s interests against public interests. It is the systematic division of a city or county by legislation into various districts or zones, and each zone defines or excludes the permissible use of the land within it. Its purpose is to “segregate conflicting land use, protect public health and safety, and provide for the orderly development of a municipality,” states Realtor Rinal Patel in an UpJourney article. It helps a city to ensure proper land use, keep property values stable, and protect the local environment.

A zone can be classified for use as residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, or for special use. Within that zone the zoning ordinances also regulate things like land use, buildings, structural and architectural designs, permissible improvements, building height and bulk, density, lot sizes, and setbacks. A zone can also influence the value of a property that sits within it, depending upon the permitted and surrounding uses.

Zoning ordinances are generally created, implemented, and regulated local by a number of various governmental bodies. These can include: building departments, zoning commissions, and zoning appeals boards. The governmental bodies must act within the police power and are limited by the Constitution (example: equal protection, due process, and takings).

Zoning appeals boards are generally established in each community to address complaints by individual property owners against local zoning ordinances. These appeal boards have the power to grant variances, or special exceptions, and property owners may appeal board decisions in courts of law.

How Does Zoning Influence Construction?

Zoning is important in construction because its laws require any proposed structure to conform to zoning and local building codes within that zone. If it does not conform, a building permit will not be issued and construction may not occur.

What Constitutes a Variance?

The zoning ordinances take into account the overall zone. However, exceptions can be made for case-specific hardships. A variance allows a deviation from the existing zoning in unique circumstances, and according to state law if the property owner can prove that the local zoning creates and undue hardship. The property owner must also show that a granted variance will not greatly alter the character of the locality. An example of a variance is the granting of a 1 ½-acre lot in an area zoned for 2-acre lots. In this case, the developer (or applicant) would need to apply for and receive a variance prior to building.

Zoning Exceptions

Other exceptions to overarching zoning regulations include: nonconforming use, spot zoning, downzoning, bulk zoning, buffer zoning, and conditional zoning.

Nonconforming Use

A nonconforming use does not conform to, or is inconsistent with, the current zoning ordinance. For example, it may have existed prior to current zoning, known as “grandfathering,” and permitted to continue despite a zoning change. If that nonconforming property is destroyed, a variance must be granted in order to rebuild.

Spot Zoning

Spot zoning is a specific nonconforming use that defines distinct zoning for a relatively small area that differs significantly from zoning of adjoining areas. It occurs when changes are made in a zoning ordinance to accommodate a specific nonconforming use. Spot zoning is difficult to implement fairly and rarely survives a legal challenge since it often results in arbitrary and discriminatory selection.


Downzoning means a change in zoning from a higher, more active category to a lower, less active or profitable category.

Bulk Zoning

Bulk zoning is used to control building density within a zone, by imposing regulations on building height, setback lines, and the percentage of open areas.

Buffer Zoning

Buffer zones separate two otherwise-incompatible land uses. For example, a buffer zone may be required between a residential area and a proposed industrial park.

Conditional or Special Use Zoning

Conditional use zoning issues a permit allowing a use not in compliance with the surrounding local zoning regulations already in effect. It is often used to permit an otherwise-prohibited use because of benefits to the community as a whole. For example, it may allow a medical center to be built within a residential neighborhood.

Why Zoning is Important

“Zoning allows local governments to regulate how certain areas under their jurisdiction may use their real estate or land for particular purposes,” states a post by Progress Capital. “Zoning can also provide the opportunity to stimulate or slow down development in specific areas or prevent new development from interfering with existing uses in order to preserve the “character” of a community.”

The general purpose of zoning is to separate commercial properties from residential properties. In addition to restricting land use, it may also regulate property dimensions, including the number of buildings on a lot or dwelling units in a certain area, the minimum lot size, and off-street parking. Zoning may restrict areas to single-family homes only, or to multi-family dwellings. And in historic or culturally-significant areas, zoning may require features to be preserved. Zoning regulations can also influence property prices.

Consequences of violating local zoning laws can be serious. If illegal activity is discovered by local authorities, like through a tax assessment, the owner or new owner may be fined and compliance may be enforced. It may result in having to tear down the illegal construction and the failure of the local zoning agency to issue further permits to the offender. If construction is not “up to code,” when the property owner goes to sell, he or she runs the risk of being forced to accept a reduced price or not being able to sell the property at all.

Ensure Zoning Compliance with a Construction Advocate like Först Consulting Group

Using a reputable contractor who understands zoning laws is essential. Having a construction advocate like Först Consulting Group also helps to serve as your personal project manager to prevent construction issues from the start.

Först Consulting Group represents those who are not construction experts, but desire assistance in making major decisions on building, remodeling or restoring their property. Knowing you are in compliance with zoning is important, but so are the other decisions and negotiations during pre-construction, construction and post-construction.

For more information about zoning and construction, or to speak to us about construction issues you may be having in Northern Virginia, Maryland or Washington DC, contact Först Consulting Group at 301-560-0424