Amending Zoning Laws

State law grants city and county legislative bodies (typically called county commissions or city councils) the authority to adopt zoning ordinances. That authority, of course, includes the power to amend the ordinances after they’re initially adopted.

The legislative body can initiate consideration of zoning amendments, but often individual landowners petition the legislative body to amend the zoning ordinance to allow some desired use. A landowner may request two types of amendments:

  • Map amendment: A map amendment changes the zoning map so that the landowner’s property is included in a new zoning district that allows the desired use. For example, a landowner who wants to build an apartment building on property that’s included in an R1 single-family residential zone might ask the legislative body to rezone the property to an R3 zoning designation that allows multiple-family residential uses.

  • Text amendment: A text amendment changes the restrictions that apply to the property’s zoning district to allow the landowner’s desired use. For example, an R1 single-family residential zone might require all buildings to be located at least 5 feet from the side boundaries of the lot.

    A landowner who wants to build an extra detached garage on her R1 lot might ask the legislative body to amend the R1 zoning restrictions to allow such a garage to be built only 3 feet from the side boundaries. Because text amendments change the restrictions for all properties in that zoning district, such amendments are relatively rare.

Many zoning ordinances say that if 20 percent (or another specified percentage) of nearby property owners object to a rezoning, the rezoning will take effect only if three-quarters of the local legislative body votes in favor.

Some courts have held that when an individual landowner seeks a zoning amendment, the legislative body’s decision whether to grant the amendment isn’t really a legislative decision. Instead, they consider it to be an administrative or quasi-judicial decision, meaning that even though the legislative body is obviously not a court, it’s acting judicially by applying existing rules and policies to a specific landowner’s property.

Courts that consider rezonings to be quasi-judicial will review a challenged rezoning decision more carefully than they review legislative actions. For example, these courts may require evidence to support the government’s claim that the rezoning decision is in the public interest.

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