Zoning and Land Use: What is the difference?

Zoning and Land Use has several denotations and quite a few connotations depending upon its context and how the term is being utilized. 
Zoning and Land Use

Zoning and Land Use, What is the difference? They are two terms that are intimately associated with planning, conservation and development.  The two terms are mistakenly used interchangeably; this is most definitely incorrect and occurs all too frequently.

Zoning is a legal title or designation that is assigned to a particular piece of property typically done by a local governmental entity (eg., municipality or county).  This designation gives rise to certain rights and responsibilities for the property owner or manager.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines Zoning as: “The division of a city (or county) by legislative regulation into districts and the prescriptive and application in each district of regulations having to do with structural and architectural designs of buildings and of regulations prescribing use to which buildings within designated districts may be put.”.

The Land Use Article, Annotated Code of Maryland defines zoning as: “…the legislative implementation of regulations for zoning by a local jurisdiction.” And “…includes a zoning ordinance, zoning regulation, zoning code, and any similar legislative action to implement zoning controls in a local jurisdiction.”  

Land Use has several denotations and quite a few connotations depending upon its context and how the term is being utilized.  Frequently, it is used to describe how a particular piece of property is used, for example: residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, etc.  This should not be confused with “Land Cover”.  This term is also related but differs from Land Use.  Land Cover typically describes how the land is physically covered.  For instance, is it forested?  Is it planted with agricultural vegetation.  The land cover may be constructed (human built) or natural as with trees or water.

Land Use defines how the land is being used by humans.  If you were blindfolded and dropped into the middle of an area and the blindfold was removed and you were then asked to describe the land use, you would answer by what it is that you see.  If everything you see in all directions are huge fields of corn, you would correctly identify the land use as “agricultural”.  If you see dozens or even hundreds of homes interspersed by streets, sidewalks and small yards, your answer would be: residential.  If your field of view includes shopping malls, strip centers, fast food restaurants, office buildings, etc. you would conclude that you were standing in the midst of a commercial land use area.  In these instances, this type of Land Use is sometimes referred to as “Existing” Land Use, ie., how the land is presently used.

Existing Land Use may or may not be consistent with Zoning.  In a perfect world, it would be, however, our world is rarely perfect.  There are countless examples of these anomalies.  There are industrially-zoned properties being used to graze cattle, there are residentially-zoned parcels occupied by offices, businesses and retail establishments.  Fortunately, as was stated in the opening paragraph: Zoning and Land Use are not the same thing.

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Another note of distinction: the tax assessor typically uses existing land use, as opposed to Zoning classification.  People frequently rely – to their detriment – upon the assessor’s designated use by assuming that this designation is the zoning classification of the property.  It is important to keep in mind that the assessor’s intention is to assign a tax obligation based upon how the property is being utilized.

In addition to Existing Land Use, there is also Future or Designated Land Use.  This is a determination – usually the product of some type of public process – whereby a property’s projected future use is identified.  Key role players in this process are staff, the landowner, citizens, the planning commission or planning board and the local legislative body (council or board of commissioners).  The identification of Future Land Use is critically important to many comprehensive planning processes.  This is important in forecasting traffic needs, water and sewerage requirements, school capacities, etc.  Ultimately, these Future Land Use designations will be used to lay out the zoning map which usually becomes the prescriptive guide for the next decade.

How do these designations change.  Occasionally, as is the case when land changes through floods, accretion (sedimentation build up) or erosion (land lost through water and sometimes wind), these changes are through natural cause.  The primary means by which these things are changed are man-made changes.  Some are temporary as with an agricultural or forest harvest activity and some are permanent as when a forest is cleared for agrarian uses, when ag-lands are converted to residential uses or when residential areas morph into commercial uses.

Comprehensive Planning activities often capture these changes.  Staff are adept at capturing changes to Land Use that have occurred since the last Plan update and Designated and Future Land Use and are important components in the comprehensive planning processes.  Changes in Zoning is much different and will be discussed in great detail in my next White Paper.

One final note on Land Use.  Administrative processes that are part of the planning process such as subdivision, site plan review, lot consolidation and other activities are sometimes referred to as “Land Use” activities.  When utilized in this fashion, the term “land use” is much broader and more generic than the Land Use discussed in this analysis.

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Phil Hager
Phil Hager

Philip R. Hager has enjoyed a diverse career in planning, zoning, land use, environmental restoration, and
public policy analysis.


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