When buying property, be sure to check the local zoning ordinance

Being aware of how a local zoning ordinance applies to a piece of property can save purchasers trouble down the road.

A sample zoning map for the fictional Spartyville, MI with a key to identify zoning districts.
A sample zoning map for the fictional Spartyville, MI with a key to identify zoning districts. Sample map by MSU Extension Citizen Planner Program.

Are you considering buying a new home or purchasing land to build on? If so, you are far from alone in Michigan. This process can be a very exciting time and is often one of the largest purchases people make in their lifetime. With such a big decision, Michigan State University Extension recognizes how important it is to thoroughly consider all aspects of the purchase, including any zoning ordinances that apply to a prospective property. An understanding of the local zoning ordinance before purchase can help avoid major headaches. 

Zoning ordinances are how local governments regulate land use, including building location and spacing, building form and size, and what uses are allowed. These regulations can have a big impact on a property owner’s plans for things like home improvements, entrepreneurship, outdoor storage of equipment and potential landscaping. It is important to understand how local zoning may impact your future plans for the property.

How to find the zoning ordinance

In Michigan, local governments have authority to plan for the future land use of their communities and adopt zoning ordinances to regulate land use through the Michigan Planning Enabling Act and the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act, respectively. Those statutes allow townships, villages, cities and counties to adopt master plans and zoning ordinances. Zoning is not required by the state though, which means some communities choose to not implement zoning.

Many communities post their zoning ordinance and zoning map on the local government’s website, typically on the pages for Planning, Zoning or Community Development departments.  A zoning map will show how a particular property is zoned. A web search for “_____________ zoning ordinance” may also yield results, but be sure to verify that any documents you find are current and for your community. According to the 2018 article “Overlooking the coast: Limited local planning for coastal area management along Michigan’s Great Lakes” by Richard K. Norton, Nina P. David, Stephen Buckman and Patricia D. Koman, Michigan has 1,859 units of local government, meaning there are many approaches to how a community chooses to make their zoning ordinance available.

Contacting the local government directly is likely the best way to find out more about zoning on any properties of interest. Most communities will have contact information on their website. The State of Michigan also has a listing of city, village and township websites, as well as a list of county governments. Each community with a zoning ordinance will have a zoning administrator who will be able to direct you to the relevant sections of the zoning ordinance. A copy of the ordinance can be obtained for free online or for a fee if a paper copy is needed. Good questions for the zoning administrator might be:

  • What is the property zoned?
  • Are there any enforcement issues with the property?
  • I want to __________ (build a pole building, start a home business, create a retreat center, start a landscaping business, build a house or an addition…) is that allowed?

Be specific when possible, such as providing dimensions or building location.

What to look for in a zoning ordinance

If, for some reason, it is not feasible or desirable to talk to the zoning administrator, there is always the option to look through the zoning ordinance to find answers. Start with the general provisions of the zoning ordinance. These will likely be near the beginning of the ordinance and outlines general provisions that will apply throughout most zoning districts.

Second, determine a parcel’s zoning district by looking at the zoning map in the ordinance or reading the text descriptions of districts. Zoning districts are typically distinguished by type of use, such as agricultural, residential, natural areas or commercial, but it varies by community.

Third, go to that zoning district’s specific regulations, with a chapter usually devoted to each district. Each zoning district lists land uses that are allowed with a simple permit, known as permitted uses, or with additional regulation, which are often called special land uses.  Some common things in the zoning district that potential buyers may want to check for are:

  • Allowed uses: Which uses of the property are allowed by right, and which are allowed after additional review and permits? This may include things like home businesses and short-term rentals.
  • Setbacks: What are the distances required between buildings and property lines or streets? This can be important for planning home improvements or new construction.
  • Building size regulations: What are the regulations on building area, height, width, footprint, etc.?
  • Environmental protections: Are there specific considerations around landscaping and mitigating environmental impact of development?
  • Density regulations: What are the limits on how many homes, housing units or accessory buildings are on the parcel?

Local units of government are granted the authority to adopt a zoning ordinance, but there is no requirement to have zoning. Some communities in Michigan have chosen to remain unzoned. However, if the property you are interested in buying is in a township that is unzoned, county zoning may apply.

MSU Extension Land Use Educators occasionally hear from new property owners who were not aware of how the zoning ordinance applied to their property. Stories of landowners being surprised by zoning restrictions that stopped plans for a new pole barn or found out that a business venture is not allowed in that zoning district are not uncommon. A local real estate agent or established building contractor may be a good resource to connect you to the zoning administrator. The National Association of Realtors also has a reference list of articles, websites and more information on zoning. Even a quick conversation with the zoning administrator about your current and future plans for the property can potentially save some stress later. Plus, it gives you a chance to meet some of the officials in your potential new community!

More resources available

In addition to educational resources on planning and zoning, MSU Extension has many resources to help potential homebuyers gain the knowledge and skills to have a successful purchase experience. MSU Extension also has experts around the state in homeownership and land use, reach out to them to ask a question or stay up-to-date with programming by subscribing to MSU Extension newsletters.

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