Have you ever seen the old show The Twilight Zone? If you (somehow) haven’t, it was a ‘60s TV show, full of thrilling and chilling short stories, all conceived and narrated by the great Rod Serling, a chain smoking, tie-wearing enigma who would face the camera and calmly talk about some of the strangest things ever put on air.

Well, in present day, there’s a different type of “zone” that can make you feel like you’ve somehow stumbled into the Twilight Zone. We’re talking, of course, about “zoning” – an incredibly important real estate concept to understand, yet one that is often so dense, broad, or overwhelming that it’s easy to overlook or ignore, even for experienced buyers or developers.

Zoning is a lofty idea, and it can be hard to wrap your head around. To make things even more complex, more often than not, homeowners and developers alike are going to be in a position where they have to navigate around zoning laws, even if those rules and guidelines aren’t exactly clear or easy to get a handle on. That’s particularly true here in our home base of Chicago, where zoning laws and ideas have changed numerous times over the years (this excellent Encyclopedia of Chicago article has a great look at the history of zoning in our city and the surrounding suburbs).

So, what is zoning? What do you really need to know about zones and zoning, and how might this concept impact your biggest real estate or professional dreams? Let’s dive into some FAQs about this crucial concept:

What Does “Zoning” Really Mean?

To put it in broad strokes, “zoning” generally refers to the process and laws by which local governments dictate how real property can and cannot be used, generally by dividing a city or municipality into certain areas based around one or more “master plans” for the area.  

Zoning laws regulate land use, and determine the type and purpose of the structures that can be built on certain stretches of land. Zoning laws and ordinances dictate what kinds of structures may be built in a given area, as well as determining important decisions like whether a building or property can be changed, repurposed, or replaced.

Historically speaking, zoning arose as a way for cities to more responsibly plan for land use. In theory, zoning rules are intended to help protect the well-being of an area and its residents. Zoning is intended to protect property values, allow for responsible and efficient commercial and residential development, and ensure that public infrastructure will be sufficient to meet the needs of the population. Broadly speaking, zoning works by dividing a given area into sub-sections – such as districts, neighborhoods, or even tracts of land – and then creating and enforcing rules, such as regulations dictating how a specific area of land is intended to be used, what types of buildings can be put on this land, where those buildings can be placed, and so on.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that zoning laws are often fairly flexible and adaptive. Cities are living, breathing, growing organisms, and responsible zoning laws allow for progress, change, and special circumstances.

Are There Different Types of Zoning?

There are many different types of zoning – and we mean that in a few different ways. First and foremost, it’s important to note that zoning laws, regulations, and plans can vary drastically from municipality to municipality. Terms or codes that mean one thing in one city may have a completely different meaning somewhere else.

With that said, it’s also important to realize that there are going to be different zoning restrictions, designations, and classifications within a community. Some common and important types of zoning classifications to be broadly aware of may include:

  • Residential zoning (a category that may include single-family residences, apartments, duplexes, condominiums, and so on; issues with residential zoning may include how many structures you can build on a lot, whether it’s legal to operate a business out of a home, how you can build or develop a property, and more)
  • Commercial zoning (a broad classification that may encompass hotels, office buildings, retail stores, business centers, night clubs, and more)
  • Industrial zoning (manufacturing plants, factories, storage facilities and large warehouses, etc; issues with industrial zoning may including noise management, waste management and pollution regulations, set-back requirements, and more)
  • Agricultural zoning (may restrict development in order to preserve viable agricultural production and farmland)
  • Historical zoning (may prevent the development or refurbishment of certain types of properties in a given area, in order to preserve local character and aesthetics)

In many, many cases – particularly here in Chicago – it’s also important to realize that zoning is going to be a matter of figuring out how these various classifications can coexist in a combined area. These groups are often going to exist in various mixed combinations, posing a unique set of challenges and opportunities for families, businesses, and developers.

Why Does Zoning Matter?

Here in Chicagoland, in many ways, zoning is one more unique obstacle or factor to consider as you prepare to undertake a real estate project – whether you are a young couple looking to buy or build your first home, or a corporation converting commercial properties to residential.

For developers, making it through local zoning boards may be a key step in the process as you prepare to leave your mark on the city. There could be various zoning rules or restrictions that might dictate what type of structure you’re allowed to create, and what aesthetic and functional guidelines you must follow as you create them.

Similarly, for homeowners, it’s important to keep in mind that zoning laws could ultimately determine just how much you’re allowed to fix up that “fixer upper.” Meanwhile, it’s also important to consider that zoning will affect the land around you. For instance? If an enormous multi-unit building might go up right next to your small single-family bungalow, that’s something you’ll want to be aware of ahead of time, so you can plan for the future.

Getting Your Most Important Real Estate Questions Answered

Zoning is an ever-present reality when it comes to real estate in Chicagoland. Like other key elements of real estate however, zoning can ultimately be complicated and confusing.

If you have any further questions about zoning or any other aspect of the real estate process in Chicagoland, it may help to get in touch with an experienced real estate attorney, who can help determine the specifics of your case and explore possible solutions tailored for your unique situation.

Have any more questions? Looking for guidance on real estate and title matters as you consider purchasing, selling, or developing property here in Chicago?

The Gunderson Law Firm can help. The attorneys and staff of the Gunderson Law Firm possess unparalleled expertise and insight, reinforced by years of experience and long-term connections throughout Chicago’s real estate, finance, and insurance industries. In fact, our attorneys are also title insurance agents for several of the top title insurance companies in the world.

From processing purchase and sale agreements and title paperwork, to helping you get through the zoning boards, historical commissions, licensing boards, easement granters, and more with the right papers in the right places, our team can help you make sure you’ve got all the “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed correctly, so that your project can move forward as quickly and smoothly as humanly possible.

Have any more questions? Want to keep the discussion going? Don’t hesitate to drop us a line to get the conversation started.