In most of Michigan, when you buy a piece of property, you aren’t free to do whatever you want with it. Instead, there are local zoning restrictions that may dictate things such as what type of building can be placed on the property and how far away it must be located from the lot line.
While some may bristle at the idea of being told what they can and cannot do with their land, decades of case law support the ability of local governments to promote the public health, safety and welfare of community members through zoning, says Wendy Rampson, director of programs and outreach for Michigan Association of Planning.
All three core communities in Lowell – City of Lowell, Vergennes Township and Lowell Charter Township – use zoning. What does that mean for property owners? Keep reading for an overview of what zoning regulations are and how they may affect you.
Why Communities are Zoned
At its most basic level, zoning is about ensuring a community operates harmoniously. “You want to make sure land uses aren’t happening in such a way [that] neighbors are disturbing one another,” says Ryan Carrigan, zoning administrator for Vergennes Township.
For instance, zoning prevents someone from placing a factory in the middle of a residential neighborhood or building a house right on a lot line which could impede a neighbor’s enjoyment of their yard.
“It is always a work in progress,” says Andy Moore, a planner with engineering firm Williams & Works who assists the City of Lowell Planning Commission. “Standards that don’t work well or don’t have the intended effect can be changed, depending on the circumstances, so most of the zoning ordinance is not carved in stone.”
As a community’s needs change so too can its zoning. For example, as interest in backyard chickens increased in recent years, many communities – including the City of Lowell – updated their ordinances to allow for them to be kept in certain areas.
“By having certain zoning regulations in different areas of the community, it shapes the physical form of the city,” Moore says. “That can have a profound impact on the kind of place Lowell is now, and how it will be in the future.”
How Communities are Zoned
A community’s master plan is meant to be the basis of its zoning ordinance. “Zoning is the primary mechanism by which a community can shape its built environment and implement its master plan,” Moore explains.
In addition to a future land use map, a master plan usually includes a community profile and a list of goals or objectives. For instance, the general goals listed in the Lowell Charter Township master plan include preserving farmland from urban encroachment, protecting environmentally sensitive areas and accommodating the growth of industrial developments.
“The hope is that they reflect the ideas of the community,” Carrigan says.
By state law, communities need to review their master plan every five years. They can decide then whether it remains relevant to the community’s needs or should be updated. The City of Lowell last updated its master plan in 2007, Lowell Charter Township revised its plan in 2014 and Vergennes Township adopted its latest version in 2018.
“A master plan is an aspirational document,” Rampson says. It isn’t one that necessarily reflect the community as it currently is but rather how it is hoped to become. “Zoning is the legal way that makes that happen.”
Planning Commissions are responsible for creating a master plan and submitting it to a community’s governing board – the city council or township commission – for adoption. Similarly, any zoning ordinance amendments they consider must ultimately be approved by elected officials.
“[The Planning Commission] doesn’t have the power to zone,” Rampson says. “They have the power to plan.”
Definitions of Basic Zoning Terms
Zoning ordinances can be hundreds of pages long as they include detailed information about property uses, lighting, fencing, accessory buildings and more.
For residents, these might be the most important terms to know:
Zoning district: Communities are broken up into zoning districts, and those districts cover the following broad categories:
However, each community creates its own distinct zoning districts within those uses. For instance, the City of Lowell has four residential zoning districts ranging from suburban residential with larger lot requirements to R3 which allows for multi-family units such as apartment buildings. Meanwhile, Vergennes Township also has four residential zoning districts but one is lake residential for lots near Murray Lake.
Communities also have planned unit developments, known as PUDs. These properties have their own zoning requirements that are created at the time the development is approved.
Special land use permit: Within each zoning district, property owners have a right to use their property for certain purposes. For instance, in a residential zone, you have a right to live in a house. In a commercial district, you have a right to operate a business.
In addition to uses “by right,” zoning ordinances include special uses. These are uses that may be appropriate for a zoning district, but a planning commission must review and give permission first.
A good example are the two restaurants that recently received approval in the City of Lowell: Jimmy John’s and Culver’s. By right, the owners could open a restaurant in the commercial district. However, a drive thru is not allowed by right. Instead, it requires a special land use permit to ensure that the property is a good fit for a drive thru. In this case, the City of Lowell Planning Commission reviewed drive thru special land use requests for each restaurant and approved them both.
Variance: A variance is a permanent exemption from a zoning requirement.
For instance, let’s say someone is building a new home and they want to place the home so it’s 20 feet from the rear lot line, but the zoning ordinance requires a 25-foot setback. In other words, the ordinance says the back of the building can be no closer than 25 feet to rear lot line. The property owner can request a variance to the setback requirement.
If approved, the variance remains with the property forever, even if ownership changes.
Non-conforming: Properties can only be held to the zoning standards that were in place when a structure was built. That’s why older homes in historic districts may cover most of their lot and even run right up to the lot line.
People often refer to properties as being “grandfathered” into earlier standards, but it’s more accurate to say the properties are non-conforming. Being non-conforming isn’t a permanent designation like a variance. If one of those old homes were to be destroyed or demolished, any new house built on the lot would have to comply with current zoning standards.
Because zoning is always evolving, it can cause confusion about what is and isn’t allowed. “Just because your neighbor has something doesn’t mean you have a right to it,” Carrigan says.
How Zoning Decisions are Made
Between public hearings and open meetings, local officials say their governments are working to ensure community members have a voice in zoning decisions. “The township isn’t making these decisions without resident input,” Carrigan says.
“A lot of zoning decisions are trying to balance the wants and needs of individual property owners with what is best for their neighbors and the rest of the community,” Moore notes. “One of the most important parts of planning and zoning is being consistent with everyone in how the ordinance is applied.”
If a community sees that a provision of the ordinance isn’t working for residents – for instance, maybe there are multiple variance requests for the same issue – it can be changed as needed. “There are ways you can listen to the community about they want and don’t want and amend the ordinance,” Rampson says.
While the zoning ordinance can outline how a community hopes it will look, it only governs the use of the land. Land might be zoned for a business, but “It’s really up to the private market and the property owner what gets built there,” Rampson says.
In the next installment of Local Government 101, we’ll talk more about that – how a business ultimately comes to town and why we have three stores dedicated to auto parts but none for toys.