No rights are absolute in our society. Your right to free speech doesn’t give you the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. And when you own property, your right to use that property is subject to local zoning and land use requirements.
Zoning laws in Maryland can be complicated. The laws set forth basic rules, but as changes have been made over the years, certain non-conforming uses have been allowed under “grandfather” provisions. The zoning laws provide for special exceptions and variances and governments issue special use permits. When it comes down to the specifics of a case, it can be very challenging to determine what is actually allowed and what is not. In those situations and when disputes arise about potential zoning violations, property owners often find it helpful to consult an attorney who understands local land use and zoning issues.
The Power to Establish and Enforce Zoning and Land Use Requirements
In most situations, the government’s power to regulate the way property owners use their land falls to state governments through the 10th Amendment as an exercise of police power, and the state in turn delegates that power to local governments. In Maryland, county governments usually regulate and enforce zoning issues, and their procedures for doing so can differ significantly, so it is essential to examine local rules closely.
In Prince George’s County, for instance, the county’s Zoning Ordinance regulates the use of land located in specific zoning categories. Within the county, the City of Laurel manages its own Zoning Ordinance. The county recently revised the Zoning Ordinance and Subdivision Regulations effective April 1, 2022. One of the key aims of the new regulations is to encourage development of “targeted growth locations” and help achieve the county’s economic development goals. At this early date, the ways officials and courts will enforce the new ordinance remain to be seen.
Special Exceptions and Conditional Uses
A Special Exception is the use of a property that is only allowed in a zoning district when it is subject to specific conditions. That is why this type of situation is also known as a “conditional use.” The use does not constitute a change in zoning but is considered a conditionally compatible use that furthers the local comprehensive plan.
When the local authorities grant a Special Exception, it is not supposed to have an adverse effect on surrounding properties. However, the concept of just what constitutes an “adverse effect” is often challenged in court. For instance, in one case, authorities permitted a funeral home to operate in a residential zone with a Special Exception, and some residents objected on the grounds that their cultural aversion to living near the funeral home had an adverse effect. The court disagreed, finding that the adverse effect had to be related to a physical condition such as excessive dust, fumes, or noise.
Authorities will often grant a zoning variance to a landowner allowing them leeway to deviate from exact compliance with zoning rules involving density, dimensional, bulk, or area requirements. Variances are granted based on conditions unique to the property that would make literal enforcement of the rules practically difficult or cause unnecessary hardship. Again, however, these terms are often subject to disputes that must be settled through negotiation or taken to court.
Talk to an Attorney to Protect Your Interests at the First Sign of a Land Use or Zoning Violation Dispute
While it can be tempting to ignore complaints involving a potential zoning violation, it is a good idea to consult a knowledgeable attorney at the first sign of trouble. An experienced zoning disputes lawyer can explain where you stand and your options going forward to give you the most opportunities to protect your interests. If you have concerns about potential zoning or land use violations, we invite you to speak with one of the skilled land use lawyers at Ralph W. Powers, Jr., P.C. to learn more about how we could assist.