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What Language is Zoning Code?

What Language is Zoning Code?

This post promises to be a short one. It could be much longer because I could cut and paste any number of sections from any number of municipal zoning codes to make my point.  But I won’t.  I will state my case succinctly.

As a real estate attorney, it is necessary for me to review local zoning ordinances often. Whether it’s to confirm the use of an existing building a client wishes to lease or purchase or to determine what can be built on a vacant parcel of land, it is important to be able to look at a zoning code and answer questions quickly.

However, most zoning codes are not user friendly. In fact, they are not written using proper English as most of us were taught in high school and college — or elementary school for that matter.  Grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and syntax are not used properly.  Cross references are confusing at best and are often wrong.  Definitions of terms would make Meriam Webster cry.

Most times, the answer can’t be properly determined from a simple reading of the zoning code. Therefore, it is often necessary to call planning and zoning staff for clarification.  And, you know what, many, not all, but many times, staff can’t answer the question.  They need time to “research”.  That means they need to discuss the question with a manager or city attorney because the code makes no sense to the people employed to interpret and enforce it.

Somehow, we fight through this language problem. We figure out what the code says or is supposed to mean.  We apply for approvals, variances, re-zonings, permits and site plans.  Then later, we try to draft new ordinances in proper English.  But somewhere down the road, a new zoning code will be enacted.  Unfortunately, it will be drafted in the same old zoning code language (are you listening Miami 21?).

David Blattner

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