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Land Use, Zoning and Planning Law in California

The laws controlling how land can and cannot be used in Sonoma County, California are fairly perplexing, and can be confusing to laypersons. This should provide a basic overview.

Local governments will usually divide the city or town into sections, called "zones," each of which is designated for a specific use, such as residential homes, commercial businesses, agriculture, manufacturing, etc. This process is known as "zoning."

Zoning serves several different purposes - but it its general one is to increase or preserve property values by ensuring that conflicting uses don't result in legal disputes. Obviously, if you bought a house in a residential neighborhood, and your neighbor could just convert his property into a steel mill, your property's value as a residential lot would decrease significantly.

Zoning also serves the interests of industry, as well as residents. By ensuring that there are places where heavy industry can take place, well-planned zoning regulations will ensure that industrialists are free to practice their trade, and that residents will not be disturbed by those activities, which makes industry more useful by helping it prevent costly nuisance lawsuits.

What if My Property Violates Sonoma County, California's Zoning Laws?

You have quite a few options if you find that a planned or prevailing use of your property breaks Sonoma County, California's zoning regulations.

It should be evident that the first option you should consider is to correct the violation. If doing this wouldn't cost you very much, or pose a major inconvenience, you should obviously do this.

What if, however, you've invested a significant amount of time and money into making an improvement on your property, only to find that it breaks your local zoning laws in some minor way? In this case, you can apply for a variance. This is essentially an exception to the zoning rules. If declining to enforce these rules would not harm anyone, and would not do much to advance the purpose of Sonoma County, California's zoning laws, a variance will usually be granted.

Moreover, if you have been residing on your property for a long time, and made improvements on it that complied with the zoning laws in effect at the time, a new zoning law that would be violated by your prevailing use of your property, the new law cannot be enforced against you. The U.S. Constitution bars the passage of "ex post facto," or retroactive, laws. Once the laws take effect, however, you'll have to comply with the new zoning laws with respect to any new improvements you want to make on your property.

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How Can a Sonoma County, California Attorney Help?

If you are in the early stages of a major construction or remodeling project on your property, particularly if it is in a residential area (where zoning laws tend to be most restrictive), you are likely to encounter one zoning law issue or another. Of course, having read this article, you should now be aware that you have rights when it comes to contesting a zoning law as applied to you. While such contests do not always come out on the side of the landowner, the assistance of a reputable Sonoma County, California real estate attorney will greatly improve one's chances.

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