Land Use and Zoning Laws in New York

New York is home to one of the oldest instated zoning law in the United States. Land use and zoning laws are out in place as a way to build towns and cities in a way that best benefits its residents and remains productive for industry. Almost every city in the US have in place a number of laws to influence how the city will develop.

Wall Street, New York

Wall Street, New York

This article explains what zoning and land use laws are, and what they mean to your home or your business.

What are Zoning Laws?

The goal behind any zoning law is to divide a city into different zones and keep those zones relatively uniform. For instance, a city will try to separate residential areas from commercial and industrial areas. This keeps residential buildings more valuable because they won’t be subject to as much noise or emissions that a factory makes. It also improves the aesthetic of neighborhoods because they are not next to industrial lots full of equipment or waste.

While broadly, the zoning laws separate the residential from the commercial from the industrial, zoning laws can become much more detailed and control many aspects of how a zone of land is to be used. A city can control what type of buildings can be built, the location of buildings in respect to the street, the size and height of the building, and how many rooms a building can have. For instance, a city may require a plot of land to be a minimum size in order to raise an apartment complex so the residents have space. The city may set a maximum lot size for a factory to make sure it doesn’t use too much of the land, reserving it for residential buildings to enjoy.

Zoning laws are dependent on the unique goals of the city enforcing them. If a city needs to boost its economy, it may become more lenient on letting industry in where it normally wouldn’t. If it needed more people, it would promote more residential areas to have increased availability.

How Zoning Laws Affect You

While zoning power lies within the city, there has been a trend for regions to work together because one city’s law can have a positive or negative effect on another city. For instance, if one city makes it easier for industries to build there, neighboring cities may lose companies if its laws are more restrictive. The laws may influence business or people to flow from one city to another. To keep such movement more stable, cities now plan together.

As mentioned before, zoning laws can dictate what a building can look like. So, if you own a lot of land and plan to build on it, not only can the city tell you if it has to be residential or commercial, they can also tell you that your building’s design must match a certain aesthetic. For example you may be in a colonial town and they want buildings to conform to a traditional look and not stand out with a modern design.

Zoning area

The laws may seem restrictive, and can even be subject to change. Landowners or tenants can become nervous because they can’t be sure that the city won’t change their apartment into a space for a department store. The good news is that the zoning power is not unlimited. Sometimes an owner can be grandfathered in to keeping a land as it is, though a new owner might have to follow the new rule.

A second way around a zoning law is called a variance. If you have a good enough reason to avoid complying with a zoning law, you can petition for a variance and be an exception to the rule. Lastly, if the city puts so much restriction on your property with a zoning law as to render it useless or valueless to you, they may be required to compensate you under the doctrine of eminent domain. With eminent domain, you would have to show that the law takes away your rights to your property and that you are entitled to compensation.


Zoning and Land Use laws are not without controversy. While the overall goal of optimizing he use and health of a city is a goal most can agree on, no decision is made without someone losing out on something. One law can negatively affect residences, while the next law could benefit them. Cities work non-stop to strike a balance of each person’s interest and the laws should change when interests change. Understanding what zoning laws can do is important to you whether you are a home owner, a tenant, or a business owner. As seen above, each law can influence what you can do with your land and ultimately what you can do with your life.


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