City wants to change residential zoning to agricultural

Visitor Question: I bought 13 acres to develop with housing. The property is zoned R-6, a residential category. Now the city wants to change the zoning to AG, an agriculture classification. The reason I purchased the property was to develop. Now I am facing a significant loss in the value of my property. What recourse do I have?

Editors Reply: Your use of the word recourse is making us a little nervous about answering the question. We are not attorneys; we are planners. But we will offer some observations you may want to consider.

First, you say the city wants to do this rezoning, not that it has rezoned. If you have not done so, be sure to visit with the planning director to understand the city's rationale and exact intentions.

If this conversation does not allay your concerns, your best bet may be to hire the best real estate or land use attorney who works in your geography. Choosing the right attorney, one who is accustomed to appearing before your local plan commission and city council, is critical to success.

Our experience in small and large jurisdictions is that it is common even in the smallest of places for attorneys to represent developer clients at public meetings. You will want to attend as well, but let the attorney do the speaking.

Arguments you might make include an increasing population meaning an accelerating demand for and need for housing, zoning of the immediately adjacent properties for urban and suburban uses rather than agricultural, or sufficient agricultural land elsewhere in the city's jurisdiction or in the nearby areas bordering the city.

As planners we should say that the loss of your property value is of no concern in the world of land use regulation, but actually in many or even most places, the reality of politics is that this is a consideration. In some states this notion of the zoning at the time of your purchase will carry major weight politically and sometimes in case law.

Some states also subscribe to the legal idea of a "vested interest" in the property. Without going into detail, we could describe this as investment-backed decisions that you have made, actions you have taken, and money you have spent, based on the current zoning.

On the practical level, we as planners see almost every month that people who have engaged and organized their neighbors often win in zoning cases. It may be helpful to you if you talk with every property owner whose land adjoins yours, with the goal of identifying allies who may come to meetings and speak or raise their hands on your behalf. A side benefit is that you can identify who is against you, and at least try to persuade them to come over to your side. The argument might be the increased value of their own property if somewhat dense residential zoning is adjacent to theirs.

Of course there is a risk here that you could stir up neighbors who would support the city's downzoning proposal, so proceed carefully.

We have one more piece of advice. If your land is in a rapidly growing region, if you can afford it, you may want to wait for a more favorable zoning classification if the city indeed succeeds in downzoning your property. In a fast growth situation, the picture can change in three to five years, and both zoning boards and city councils often give in to the inevitable expansion of urban uses when the supply of readily available infill housing sites dwindles to nothing.

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