Commonly Used Zoning Terms

The following is a list of commonly used zoning terms that you might hear in a presentation or read in the materials created for this process. This is intended to be a resource. If you have any specific questions about these terms or anything else contact us!

Accessory Use – Accessory uses are permitted additional, incidental, supportive, or subordinate uses for a land parcel, in addition to its Principal Use. 

Board Of Zoning Appeals (BZA) – An appointed body of a government entity that has established a Zoning Code. The BZA hears appeals from property owners about proposed property uses that do not conform with the current Zoning Code and makes decisions about whether to grant exceptions and variances to Zoning Ordinances.

Business District – Land that is zoned for commercial use. A business district can be properties along major thoroughfares, or can be contiguous groups of parcels, such as a central business district or shopping district.

Conservation Easement – A legal tool through which a person or entity may purchase or donate property for the purpose of preserving natural amenities or protecting environmental resources. 

Commercial Use – Land uses that are permitted only in commercial districts, which typically include wholesale, retail, office, or service business uses that operate for profit.

Density (Measurement) – The number of housing units per gross acre. Gross acreage is the total number of acres in the parcel to be developed minus any existing public road rights-of-way.

Design Standards – A set of standards governing the appearance and aesthetics of buildings or improvements. These standards govern construction, alteration, demolition or relocation of a building or improvement and any improvements/alterations to land.

Development Rights – The freedoms granted to property owners to develop their land under local, state, and/or federal laws. 

Easement – The legal authorization granted by a property owner for another to use a designated area of the owner’s property for specified public or private purpose. Easements are typically used for utilities, drainage, and access. 

Fiscal Impact – The effect economic development or public policy has or may have on local government finances.

Frontage – Frontage refers to the property line that is adjacent to a road. Frontage requirements may regulate how far back a building can be, where the parking is located, what street landscaping is required, and other design elements.

Hardship – The undue burden on a property owner, in the form of significant loss in economic value of a property, which is caused by the zoning regulations.  Hardship can result from the shape, size, layout, and unique location of a parcel.

Historic Building – A building and property listed in the state or national historic register. 

Impervious Surface – Any land area covered by buildings or paved with a hard surface such that water cannot seep through the surface into the ground. 

Infill – Construction of new facilities such as housing and/or commercial centers within existing urban or suburban areas. 

Master Plan (also known as General Plan or Comprehensive Plan) – A Master Plan collects a community’s visions and goals for the future into a guide to direct city officials and residents in their choices about land use and community growth over a period of 10-20 years. A Master Plan provides the justification and legal basis for zoning regulations. 

Mixed Use – A variety of residential, commercial, and office uses grouped together in a geographic area. 

Nonconforming Use – A building or use, that lawfully existed prior to the effective date of the Zoning Code, that does not currently conform to the regulations of the zoning district in which it is located. 

Nuisance Doctrine – The legal principle that property owners do not have an absolute right to use property in a way that might harm the public health or welfare, would damage a neighboring landowner’s interest, or would harm the interests of the community as a whole.

Open Space – Land set aside and permanently restricted for conservation, agriculture or recreation purposes by a municipality, nonprofit conservation organization or land trust, homeowners association, or person. Open Space may include woodlands, wetlands, utility areas, pasture, landscaped yards, gardens or play areas, golf courses, walking and riding trails, and similar areas. Open Space does not not include structures such as tennis courts, buildings, swimming pools, parking lots or other areas with impervious surfaces. 

Permitted Use – A use for a parcel that conforms to the allowable uses for a particular zoning district as defined by the Zoning Code. Permitted uses are often referred to as “by right” uses because no special review or public hearing is needed to construct or operate the use. 

Planned Unit Development (PUD) – A single lot or group of adjacent lots that require master planning and a comprehensive development review process. PUDs are usually developed for residential and mixed uses, and occasionally for commercial projects. See 

Planning – The legal process for deciding the future use of the land in a community.

Planning and Zoning Code – A document that establishes rules for how people can use their property. These rules define what uses are allowed for different properties, what size building(s) can be built, how big signs can be, where a building may be located on the property, how many parking spaces are required, what landscaping is required, and other similar elements. A Planning and Zoning code is a legally enforceable document and is used to implement a Master/General/Comprehensive Plan. 

Principal Use – The permitted or specially permitted use that a property owner chooses for a parcel of land. Any other use of the property must be an Accessory Use. 

Property Rights – A defined privilege to use land, water, and other resources in particular ways.

Reasonable Use – A use that is fair and suitable under the circumstances, brings fair economic return (but not necessarily the highest economic return), is compatible with the general purposes of promoting the health, safety and general welfare of the public, and furthers a legitimate zoning purpose.

Residential District – A zone established for housing that can have various densities and varieties of dwelling.

Right-Of-Way (ROW) – The area over which a legal right of passage exists. Land used for public purposes, such as public facilities, transportation projects, or other infrastructure.

Screening – Features, such as landscaping and/or physical barriers, used to obscure the view and help mitigate potential incompatibilities between different types of land uses.

Setback – The minimum horizontal distance that is required between a property line, or other line, and a building. 

Site Plan – A scaled drawing presenting the layout of a proposed development/land use. Site plans show specific details, which may include lot lines, access roads, rights-of-way, major landscape features, environmentally sensitive areas, existing and proposed utility easements, and other features.

Spot Zoning – Spot zoning occurs when a single parcel is zoned differently than surrounding uses for the sole benefit of the landowner. Spot zoning is illegal. Municipalities may lawfully zone specific properties differently than surrounding uses if the uses of these properties serve public benefits or a useful purpose to the surrounding properties.

Streetscape – The composition of elements in a street which create the urban form and includes elements such as building forms and styles, landscaping, street furniture, pavements etc.

Sustainable Development – Development that maintains or enhances economic opportunity and community well-being while protecting and restoring the natural environment upon which people and economies depend. It is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

Variance – A waiver to provide ease and relief from ordinance requirements and standards in case the land cannot be developed as allowed by zoning because its shape, proximity, location, topography, etc., causes undue economic hardship for the owner. Examples include relaxing setback distances from the front, side, and back lot lines. 

Yard – The land surrounding a structure. A Zoning Code may establish minimum depth requirements for front, corner side, side and rear yards for various uses, structures and districts. It may also establish the minimum distance between a lot line and parking area. (See also, Setback)