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Zoning is a relatively new concept (less than 100 years old) that allows communities to control how property can be used. Cities, towns and other authorities divide areas into zones in which various uses are permitted.

In theory, zoning allows the separation of land uses which are thought to be incompatible. In practice, zoning prevents new development from interfering with existing residents or businesses; it is intended to preserve the “character” of a community.

While zoning is commonly controlled by such local governments as counties or municipalities, the nature of zoning may be determined (or limited) by state or national planning authorities, or through enabling legislation.

Zoning may regulate land use activities which will be acceptable on particular lots — open space, residential, agricultural, commercial or industrial, for example. Also, it may regulate the densities or intensities at which those land use activities may take place, from low-density housing (such as single family homes) to high-density (such as high-rise apartment buildings). Other regulations may include the height of buildings, the amount of space structures may occupy, building locations (setbacks), the proportions of lot spaces (such as how much landscaped space), impervious surface, traffic lanes, and the amount of provided parking spaces.

Just how zoning is incorporated into various planning systems may vary, even though intentions are generally similar.

Florida has a unique approach to the zoning process.

In the 1993 Florida Supreme Court decision of Snyder v. Board of County Commissioners, the court determined that zoning decisions were quasi-judicial in nature rather than legislative. Quasi-judicial decisions require notice, presentation of evidence, and decisions based on substantial evidence. That decision narrowed the discretion of local zoning officials and subjected their decisions to strict court scrutiny.

The Snyder case also dictated that landowners seeking to rezone their property prove their proposal is consistent with the local government’s zoning ordinance. Once that has been met, however, the burden shifts to the government to demonstrate that maintaining the existing classification accomplishes a legitimate public purpose.

Notably, under Florida’s 2011 Community Planning Act, zoning is considered a development permit, and a development permit is considered a development order that must be consistent with a local government’s adopted Comprehensive Plan. If it is not, it may be challenged.

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