How to Find Old Zoning Codes

Three Parts:Learning Previous Zoning RestrictionsEvaluating a Property's Current UseApplying Old Zoning Codes to Future Uses

Before you buy property, you must make sure that the use to which you want to put that property comports with the existing zoning requirements. This can be a challenge if the property you've got your eye on is currently vacant, or if the existing owner is engaged in a non-conforming use. In these situations, among others, you may need to find old zoning codes to determine that property's zoning history and whether your use of the property would be permitted.[1][2]

Part 1
Learning Previous Zoning Restrictions

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    Acquire current property documents. If you want to learn about the zoning history of a property, you typically need to know that property's parcel number or legal description, which can be found on the property's deed.[3]
    • Deeds are recorded at the county clerk's office. You'll need the address of the property to get access to the deed.
    • Some county clerks or recorders have electronic databases of property information that you can access online.
    • Your county tax assessor's office also may have important information about the ownership of the property that can help you in your zoning research. You also may be able to search these records online.
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    Complete a title search on the property. If you're planning to purchase the property, you typically will conduct a title search anyway. The title search can let you know when and how the current owner purchased the property, as well as previous uses of the property.[4][5]
    • You can hire a title search company to do this work for you, but in many cases you can do it yourself and save a little money.
    • However, keep in mind that if you're planning to conduct a title search on your own, it may require a significant time investment, given you may have to sort through various paper documents by hand.
    • A title search can reveal a number of issues concerning the property, some of which may impact your proposed use. For example, the property may be subject to an easement by the neighboring property owner.
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    Pull archived codes. Zoning ordinances are a matter of public record, so old zoning codes typically can be found by making a request at the city or county zoning board or planning office. You also may be able to find archived codes online.[6][7]
    • Most cities or counties that have archived codes available online only show old codes going back a few years. If you need an older code, you may need to make a trip to the office.
    • Some cities also have online directories that will allow you to view zoning documents and history for a specific property.
    • For example, the city of Philadelphia has an online zoning archive that allows you to search by property address.
    • Entering a Philadelphia address returns all zoning documents related to that property, which you can view and print out for your records.
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    Study changed categories and definitions. While there are basic zoning categories that are the same pretty much anywhere in the U.S., your particular city or county may further subdivide those categories to address more specific uses.[8][9]
    • For example, zoning regulations may require you to have a specific amount of off-street parking available for business clients, particularly in mixed-use neighborhoods that include both residences and commercial properties.
    • Other zoning regulations, such as those controlling the size and placement of commercial signs, may change even though the zoning of the property does not.

Part 2
Evaluating a Property's Current Use

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    Speak to the current owner. One of the easiest ways to find out the current zoning for a property is to speak to the current owner, particularly if they currently occupy and use the property. This may not be helpful, however, if the property is vacant.[10][11]
    • An owner of a vacant lot typically will do the work to determine the zoning of the property before they list it for sale, but this doesn't mean you shouldn't check into it on your own as well.
    • However, in many situations, particularly if the owner is not local, you may not be able to get much information about vacant property.
    • Owners currently using the property usually can provide more information. For example, if they've applied for a variance or attended a zoning hearing, they'll be able to tell you what happened.
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    Get a copy of the current zoning map. The planning commission or zoning board typically has a copy of the zoning map for the city or county where the property is located. Finding the property on the zoning map can give you a better understanding of what uses are permitted there.[12][13]
    • Once you've located the property, you also might consider neighboring zones. For example, if the property is zoned residential but borders a commercial zone, it may be easier to get a variance if needed.
    • The zoning map also can give you a big picture understanding of the neighborhood where the property is located and the types of property it adjoins.
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    Consult a zoning authority. Someone at the city or county planning office can help you interpret the zoning map, as well as figure out if perhaps the property you're looking at was zoned improperly. Mistakes can happen, particularly in dense areas that include many properties zoned for multiple uses.[14][15]
    • Staff at the city or county planning office are experts at reading and interpreting the zoning map, so they should be able to answer any questions you have.
    • Make sure you understand not only how the property is zoned, but any conditions that might apply to that particular location.
    • If you suspect your planned use won't conform with current zoning, but you're still interested in the property, planning office staff can give you information on how to apply for a variance or any other options available to you.
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    Check conditions for particular uses. Even if the use you have planned for the property fits into the overall category, your city or county may have specific conditions attached to certain uses. This is a particular risk if the property is zoned for multiple uses.[16][17]
    • Depending on how long the current owner has owned the property, they may not even be aware of certain conditions on the property.
    • This may also be true if the current owner bought the property and used it as it was without any additions or developments.
    • In other situations, conditions may have changed since the current owner bought the property, but the ordinance provides that the change won't take effect until the property is sold.

Part 3
Applying Old Zoning Codes to Future Uses

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    Consult an attorney. If the zoning picture of the property is complex, talking to a local attorney who has experience with your local land use laws can help you make sense of it all. While attorney's fees can be steep, you'll generally save money when compared to the costs of violating a zoning ordinance.[18]
    • You need to find an attorney who is well-versed in your city or county's zoning ordinance, and has experience with the planning commission or before the zoning board.
    • If you don't know any attorneys who fit this profile, you might ask a real estate agent or other real estate professional if they have any recommendations.
    • Another place to check is the website of your state or local bar association. There, you'll typically find a searchable directory of attorneys licensed to practice in your areas that you can use to find someone that would work for you.
    • Be sure to ask any attorney you interview specific questions about their background working with zoning cases. Ideally, you can find someone who's had favorable results in situations similar to yours.
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    Determine if your proposed use conforms to current zoning. Regardless of what current or previous owners have done, if your proposed use of the property falls squarely within the current zoning of the property, you won't have any problems.[19][20]
    • You already have a good general idea of this from your research into the past and present zoning of the property.
    • If you have any questions about how the zoning ordinance would operate in your situation, ask an attorney or speak to someone in the zoning office.
    • Keep in mind that your use of the property isn't necessarily determined by the previous owner's use – particularly if they applied for a variance, or if their use was grandfathered in to a recently enacted ordinance.
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    Find out if the property can be grandfathered. The current owner may be using the property in a way that doesn't conform to the current zoning code, typically that permission for a non-conforming use doesn't transfer to you if you buy the property.[21][22][23]
    • However, in some circumstances a non-conforming use can continue as grandfathered in to the zoning code as an exception, even if the property is sold.
    • Your attorney will be able to tell you more about these exceptions and analyze whether you could continue the same non-conforming use as the current owner.
    • Where a grandfathered use is possible, this is so because the character of the property runs with the property itself, not with the property's ownership.
    • However, if the current owner is operating under a variance, this runs with the owner rather than with the property itself.
    • Even if you are able to grandfather in your use, you may not be ablate do any upgrades to the property or operations, and there may be additional restrictions on your use.
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    Speak to neighboring property owners. If it appears that you'll need to apply for a variance or other conditional permission from the zoning board, having the neighboring property owners behind you can make a huge difference in your chances of being approved.[24][25]
    • For example, if you plan to continue the same use as the current owner, neighbors who weren't adversely affected by the current owner's operations shouldn't have any problem with yours.
    • You also may have an easier time getting the neighbor's support if you're planning to buy a vacant lot. As long as your use isn't uncommonly disruptive, most neighbors will find it preferable to the eyesore of a vacant lot.
    • If your use would differ from that of the current owner, in talking to neighboring property owners you want to emphasize that your use will cause a minimum of disruption and will improve the character of the neighborhood.
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    Consider whether you could apply for a variance. To apply for a variance, you'll need to get the proper forms from the local zoning board or planning commission and submit them for approval before you can begin your use.[26][27]
    • Timing can be important here, because you have to own the property before you can apply for a zoning variance.
    • However, you can't begin your non-conforming use until a variance is granted. Depending on how long the process takes, your land could be sitting for several months before you can use it.
    • Typically your request will be evaluated by a single zoning officer, who will review the zoning ordinance and your property and make a determination.
    • If the zoning officer doesn't approve your request, you typically have the ability to appeal it to the zoning board.
    • If you think you'll need to apply for a variance, talk it over with your attorney first. If the chances are relatively low that a variance will be granted, it may be in your better interests to find a different property without as many challenges.

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