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No Use Crying Over It: Land Use Codes and Ordinances

As any landowner knows, there are a variety of land use codes and ordinances, the enforcement of which can have a drastic impact on a property’s use.  To further muddy the waters, there are differences between zoning districts and land use designations.  Simply put, land use codes and ordinances set forth requirements to establish the type of development that can occur within a municipality or community.  The codes focus on separating different types of land uses into areas where development not only makes sense but can be accomplished in an orderly manner that encourages new growth while maintaining an area’s tradition.  The codes help to not only conserve the community’s cultural and natural resources, but to promote the public’s health, safety, and welfare.  The codes vary from state to state, and from municipality to municipality.

In a very broad sense, there are four basic types of land use regulations: zoning, subdivision and land development, property maintenance, and building codes.  Zoning divides a municipality into zoning districts where certain types of uses are permitted, such as residential, commercial, and industrial uses.  Some smaller municipalities might not have a zoning ordinance.  If the municipality does have zoning, and depending on the municipality’s comprehensive plan, the goals are to ensure all of the aforementioned uses are compatible with one another, and are permitted somewhere in the municipality so that those uses do not have a negative impact on the health, safety, and welfare of the community.

The subdivision and land development ordinances allow a municipality to set forth specific standards for development, including specifications for streets, sidewalks, utilities, stormwater facilities, and other infrastructure.  The goal is to promote safe development, as well as the conservation of natural and cultural resources.

The property maintenance code designates minimum standards with which all properties located in the municipality must comply.  Many provisions establish penalties for allowing a property to fall into disuse or disrepair that creates a public nuisance. For example, the code could set a maximum height for grass, require repairs to sidewalks, or set forth a procedure when properties are deemed to be uninhabitable.

Lastly, building codes establish construction standards so that new development will be structurally sound and safe for the occupants.  These standards are set forth in the Uniform Construction Code (UCC).  About 90% of all Pennsylvania municipalities have elected to administer and enforce the UCC locally by way of an inspector and examiner.  Similarly, in New York, current state regulations (19 NYCRR 444), all municipalities are required to provide for the administration and enforcement of UCC through the adoption of local laws and ordinances.  The process is very similar in New Jersey and Maryland.  Generally, the codes sets forth requirements for accessibility to a structure, as well as property safety, lighting, and fireproofing.

Although each code is distinct and addresses different aspects of land use, the general theme is to ensure the orderly and safe development within a community.  If any question arises as to whether a proposed use is permitted within a municipality, you should contact the local zoning officer, as well as an attorney.  Although public restrictions, such as the land use codes, will prohibit certain uses within a community, private restrictions set forth in deeds and restrictive covenants can similarly limit a property owner’s use of a parcel of land.

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