Land-Use Control

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

Activities such as ZONING, the regulation of the development of real estate, and city planning.

Land-use controls have been a part of Western civilization since the Roman Empire in 450 B.C. promulgated regulations concerning setback lines of buildings from boundaries and for distances between trees and boundaries. Regulations on the use of land existed in colonial America, but the demand for public regulation of real estate development did not become significant until the twentieth century. As the United States shifted from a rural to an urban society, city governments sought to gain control over the location of industry, commerce, and housing. New York City adopted the first comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1916. By the 1930s zoning laws had been adopted in most urban areas.

The development of master plans and zoning regulations became an accepted part of urban life. Following WORLD WAR II, housing patterns shifted from the inner city to suburbia. The suburbanization of the United States led to the creation of discrete housing developments. Growing suburban communities began imposing regulations on the amount and type of housing that would be allowed within their municipal boundaries. Beginning in the 1970s, as urban sprawl created problems that crossed municipal borders, attention turned to regional planning. Concerns about the environment and historic preservation led to further regulation of land use.

Federal, state, and local governments, to varying degrees, regulate growth and development through statutory law. Nevertheless, a majority of controls on land stem from actions of private developers and government units. The use of land can be affected by judicial determinations that frequently arise in one of three situations: (1) suits brought by one neighbor against another, (2) suits brought by a public official against a neighboring landowner on behalf of the public at large, and (3) suits involving individuals who share ownership of a particular parcel of land.

Private Land-Use Restrictions

A number of restrictions on land are a result of actions by government units. Many restrictions, however, are created by land developers. Such devices take several forms and can be either positive or negative in nature. They include defeasible fees, EASEMENTS, equitable servitudes, and restrictive covenants.

Defeasible Fees In defeasible fee estates, the grantor gives land to the grantee, subject to certain conditions. For example, A might convey a parcel of land to B, provided that it be used for school purposes. The effect of the defeasible fee is that it restricts the use of the property by the possessor. Failure to observe the conditions causes the property to revert to the grantor. Estates of this type are no longer favored in most jurisdictions, because they make the transfer of land cumbersome and do not take into account unforeseen situations. The limited scope of defeasible fees makes them of limited value.

Easements Easements are rights to use the property of another for particular purposes. A common type of easement in current use is the affirmative grant to a telephone company to run its line across the property of a private landowner. Easements also are now used for public objectives, such as the preservation of open space and conservation. For example, an easement might preclude someone from building on a parcel of land, which leaves the property open and thereby preserves a park for the public as a whole.

Equitable Servitudes Equitable servitudes are land-use restrictions enforceable in a court of EQUITY. They are created by the language of the promise in the form of a COVENANT (agreement) between two individuals. For example, suppose A owns a parcel of land on the edge of a city that A subdivides the parcel into ten lots,

numbered 1 to 10. A then records a declaration of restrictions, limiting each of the ten lots to use solely for family dwelling, providing that only a single-family house may be built on each lot. A sells the lots to ten people, and each deed contains a reference to the declaration of restrictions by record book and page number, coupled with a provision that the person purchasing the lot and all successive purchasers of the lot are bound by the restrictions.

Restrictive Covenants Restrictive covenants are provisions in a deed limiting the use of the property and prohibiting certain uses. They are similar in effect to equitable servitudes, but restrictive covenants run with the land because the restrictions are contained in the deed. Restrictive covenants are typically used by land developers to establish minimum house sizes, setback lines, and aesthetic requirements thought to enhance the neighborhood. The legal differences between equitable servitudes and restrictive covenants are less important today, as courts have merged the terms into one general concept.

The Master Plan and Official Map

Municipal land-use regulation begins with a planning process that ultimately results in a comprehensive or master plan followed by ordinances. These ordinances involve the exercise of the municipality's POLICE POWER through zoning, regulation of subdivision developments, street plans, plans for public facilities, and building regulations. Many states provide for the creation of an official map for a municipality. The map shows the location of major streets, existing and projected public facilities, and other such landmarks. Developers must plan their subdivisions in accordance with the official map.

The master plan takes into account the location and type of activities occurring on the land and the design and type of physical structures and facilities serving these activities. Long-range projections of population and employment trends are considered. The planning process is designed to enable a locality to plan for the construction of schools, streets, water and sewage facilities, fire and police protection, and other public amenities, and the private use of land is controlled by zoning and subdivision ordinances enacted in compliance with the plan.

Planned Communities: Read the Fine Print

One in eight people in the United States live in planned communities, which include townhouses, condominiums, co-ops, and entire real estate developments containing single-family homes. A common feature of all planned communities is a homeowner association, which oversees the maintenance and administration of the real estate, especially the common areas shared by all owners. A board of directors of the association, elected by the property owners, enforces the community's rules.

Planned communities often impose a number of restrictions on their members. These are typically contained in the real estate deed, which becomes a contract between the property buyer and the community. Purchasers are bound by these restrictions whether or not they read or understood them. The restrictions may cover a wide range of architectural and aesthetic limitations, and are believed to increase the value of property in the community. Unwary residents may find the limitations extreme.

Residents of planned communities have faced limitations on things such as paint colors, pets, sports and sporting equipment, and outdoor decorations. Under such restrictions homeowners have been threatened with fines for stringing Christmas lights, taken to court because their dog was too heavy, and prohibited from throwing a Frisbee. Association dues can be used to pay for a lawsuit enforcing a restriction, and some bylaws require the defendant homeowner to reimburse the association's legal fees.

Since the 1970s more emphasis has been placed on regional and statewide planning. These planning initiatives have often been based on environmental concerns. Regional planning

has become attractive to urban areas that cross state lines....

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