By Kathleen G. Moriarty, Peters & Moriarty, Attorneys and Counselors of Law

Legal Matters is a regular column intended to address general legal concerns. Since every client walks in the door with a different set of circumstances, you should not rely on this column to provide specific legal advice. If you are in need of specific legal advice, please consult with an attorney; he or she will provide advice that is unique and tailored to your legal needs.

Zoning laws were initially established sometime around the beginning of the twentieth century as cities – and buildings – grew. Many of the first zoning laws in New York City, for instance, were established to regulate the growth of skyscrapers.

More generally, a zoning law is a land-use planning tool established by a municipality to promote compatibility between new and existing development. It is often said that their primary purpose is to preserve the character of the community. Zoning laws also serve a public safety purpose – preventing building development in floodplains or separating potentially dangerous land uses from areas of the community that may be more heavily used by residents.

Historically, communities have used zoning maps to illustrate the established zones – hence, the term “zoning law.” The zoning law then defines the permitted use of the land within that zone. The urban core of the municipality will likely define the “commercial zone;” similarly, the residential zone will likely fall more heavily in the suburban and rural parts of the community.

More often than not, however, there are certain uses that are compatible with each other such that one zone is not strictly limited to one use. For instance, residential use is permitted in the Village of Ellicottville’s zoning district designated “Village Commercial 1,” but that’s not to say that all commercial uses are permitted in Village Commercial 1. In fact, the Village contains three commercial zoning districts as well as an independent Industrial zoning district.

Although municipalities may have any number of reasons to create more than one commercial district, the purpose is often to separate heavier manufacturing from more service-oriented commercial uses.

Zoning maps and laws create an even playing field by noticing residents of the way their land may be used. This is a useful tool for a person looking to purchase land because s/he has a means to understand the restrictions and permitted uses of the property prior to purchasing it.  As expected, problems still arise, and when they do the municipality’s Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals provide residents with an avenue to find solutions.