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Definition of Subdivisions and How to Change Land Classification

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Created on Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Updated on Monday, February 26, 2018
by Land Century

Almost everyone has lived in, driven through or even just seen a subdivision before. What is a subdivision? According to Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary, it's:

"... a large tract subdivided into small parcels for sale."

Plat Definition

The written plan of the layout of a subdivision is called a plat, and each plat must show the dimensions and characteristics of each parcel of land within the subdivision. By definition, plats must be drawn to scale. Plats must also provide the requisite zoning information based on the municipality in which the subdivision lies. The purpose of a subdivision is to provide an environment conducive to sustained growth, business diversity and overall development. Such development is defined as:

"... the design work of lot layout, the construction of drainage structures, the construction of buildings or public use areas, the planning and construction of public streets and public roads, and the placement of public utilities."

Zoning and Regulations

Within the subdivision, all instances of public utilities must conform to the governing regulations of not only the municipality but also the state and federal regulatory agencies responsible for administering the laws and regulations regarding subdivisions. In many cases, because of population trends where people move out of wholly urban environments, subdivisions wind up being residential neighborhoods, with the urban centers themselves becoming centers for business and industrial parks.

The major difference between zoning laws and the regulation of subdivisions is that, by their very nature, subdivisions are permanent. Once the streets are laid out, buildings are erected and utilities installed, the physical aspects of the area aren't going to change. Zoning laws could change and, while existing structures would have to be grandfathered, affect new construction in adjacent areas or in empty parcels that are part of the original plat.

Subdivision Regulation Examples

As an example, a subdivision regulation might say that each parcel measures no more than 52 feet on its shortest side, which is the property's frontage, and that its longest dimension measures no more than 165 feet. An accompanying zoning law could state that, "All such parcels west of Wistful Vista are to have only single-family dwellings built upon them." If 10 such parcels existed and nine of them had houses erected upon them, a zoning law change that now allowed the building of 3-story apartment dwellings in the area would affect the 10th parcel and ignore the nine built-upon parcels. The plat, however, would still list the empty parcel as 52 x 165 feet because the ground is the ground, no matter what might be slated to be built upon it.

Minor Subdivision Flowchart

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All of this information is general in nature and may not apply to any specific situation. One would be wise to check all applicable local, state and federal regulations regarding his or her municipality before proceeding in any way with the purchase, sale or development of any plat of land that includes a subdivision.

Changing Classification

But what happens if you own a great piece of land, but you can’t go through with your plans to develop the property because the use is prohibited by its zoning? Do you have to trash your idea, and come up with a new plan? While difficult, it’s possible to change your land’s classification, or in the very least, obtain a zoning variance permit.

Here’s how:

What You Need To Know

First, it’s important to note that property zoning is governed by your local county or city laws. These laws divide land into different classifications, or zones. The classification of the land determines how you can use it. A residential area, for example, may only allow new homes to be built, whereas a commercial zone will allow retail stores to be developed. Naturally, land uses will vary depending on the location.

If you think zoning laws may prevent you from going through with your project plans, you can obtain a copy of the zoning map and applicable ordinances for your property. The local planning or building department can provide you with a copy of any ordinances and the zoning map.

Once you have the map, you can determine what your property zoning designation is and refer to the ordinances that apply to that classification. This is all you need to determine which uses are permitted under that particular designation. You may just find that there are no restrictions that prohibit your intended use of the land.

Changing Land Classifications

If zoning does prohibit your intended use of the land, your best option is to see if you can tweak your project plans to fall in line with the zoning’s ordinances. Tweaking your plans may wind up costing you the most time and money.

If you cannot make your plans to fall within the zoning ordinances, you can request a zoning exception or change that would allow you to go through with your project. It may be helpful to consult with an attorney if you’re having trouble interpreting the ordinances.

Use Permits and Zoning Variances

In most cases, it’s easier to obtain a zoning exception than it is to change your land’s classification. You can obtain a zoning exception through either a use permit or a zoning variance.

* Zoning variance: A zoning variance allows you to use the land in a way that you would normally be unable to under its current zoning. Variances are typically only granted if the landowner can demonstrate that special conditions on the land are creating an undue hardship that makes it difficult to comply with the zoning requirements.

* Use permit: Also known as a conditional use permit, this permit grants the landowner the ability to use the property in a way that is normally not permitted under the current zoning regulations. Typically, these permits, come with a number of stipulations. For instance, if you run a business on a piece of land that was once a commercial zone, and that zone has since been changed to a residential zone, you may be able to obtain a special use permit that would allow you to continue running your business. However, the permit may come with a condition that you can only run your business during certain hours of the day, or you may be required to limit the number of parking spaces you have. Generally, use permits will expire when the land is sold or transferred.

Changing Land Classification

Rarely is it easy to change a property zoning. Any rezoning that is proposed must be in line with the local master land use plan. Before you attempt to request a land classification change, obtain a copy of this plan from your local zoning office. Take the time to study the plan, and determine whether your project is in line with the goals of the local master plan.

The exact procedure for requesting a land classification change will vary depending on the location and your local ordinances. In most cases, a written application must be filed, and you need to pay a fee. You also have to present your case to the local zoning board during a hearing. The hearing is the key to having your zoning change request granted. You will need to present the board with the specifics of your request, and provide convincing reasons to persuade the board to grant your request.

Rallying Support from Your Neighbors

Before the local zoning board will grant you a variance or a change in your land’s classification, there’s a good chance that you will have to prove that your intended use will not have a negative effect on your neighbors. Even if you are not required to get support from your neighbors, it may help in the long run to do so as it can help you avoid future conflicts.

Consider holding a meeting with your neighbors and explaining what your plans are to them. Make sure that you emphasize the fact that your project will not have any adverse effects on them. Let’s say that you wanted to open a local farm stand. Neighbors might be worried about increased noise and traffic. But pointing out the location of your driveway and the convenient parking that you will offer might convince them that traffic will not be a problem.

If anything, neighbors will appreciate you sharing your plans and rallying for their support. Be sure to listen to your neighbors’ concerns, and offer compromises to overcome these conflicts. A compromise may help sway neighbors who are reluctant to show their support.

If you can, get written statements of your neighbors’ support, and bring those statements with you to your zoning hearing. Better yet, convince them to go to the hearing with you. If you do decide that a change in land classification is the best course of action, just know that you’ll need to have a strong case if you hope to succeed. Point out the different ways that your use of the land will benefit the neighborhood, or in the very least, not adversely affect it.

Date: 30th March 2015

Author: Dean Derossi
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