How does zoning pertain to condos?

Visitor Question: I am wondering whether the zoning law covers our condos. If so, how does that work? It seems like my large community is sort of self-governing, although of course we use the city police, fire department, and so forth, but then we also pay a handsome amount of taxes.

So does the city's current zoning requirement have any effect in our condo association area? I heard that the city had to approve the development in the first place, but are they hands off after that? Or do we the condo buyers still have to worry about zoning?

Editors Reply: Yes, your condo's homeowners association (HOA) still has to abide by the zoning law in your city. You as an individual property owner also must obey the zoning ordinance. A condominium is simply an ownership structure, but your master deed may have created a homeowners association that seems to have some regulatory power to make rules that may or may not be enshrined in deed restrictions or covenants. This could be why the condo association may appear "self-governing," but actually it is not.

Zoning, condo covenants, and HOA rules that stop short of being permanently installed and enforceable through deed restrictions all must be followed.

Now let's entertain your last question about whether you must still "worry about" zoning. Practically speaking, after your condominium development is entirely or mostly built out, in most situations there seems to be little chance that zoning changes would impact you in any way.

We have to use the qualifying phrase "in most situations" because we can think of some instances where zoning might make an impact on your HOA and therefore ultimately the HOA fees you need to pay. One example readily springing to mind would be a zoning change designed to address the problem of sea level rise if you live near the ocean. Your condominiums might not be able to meet new stricter elevation requirements imposed in a zoning ordinance amendment and therefore could become what is known as nonconforming uses.

When a land use such as someone's condo, your clubhouse, or pool no longer conforms to the zoning ordinance, even though it had to conform when it was built, the land use is said to be "nonconforming." Each city's zoning code is different, but there are so many similarities across the U.S. that is relatively safe to make some assumptions about definitions and conditions.

Usually a nonconforming use that is destroyed or destroyed by a substantial percentage cannot be rebuilt unless the land use conforms to the new regulations found in the zoning ordinance. So even if you don't live by the ocean, let's say that a tornado tears through your development and that about 60 percent of the value of someone's condo is destroyed by the storm. Now that person cannot rebuild without conforming to the new requirements, nor can the condo association or anyone else rebuild on behalf of that person.

The percentages by which a structure must be destroyed for it to fall under the prohibition against rebuilding do vary substantially from city to city.

So you can see that although if all goes well, your zoning ordinance should not cause you any grief at all, in the event of catastrophe for you and/or your neighbors, there can be a negative impact if relevant portions of the zoning ordinance have changed.

By the way, what you heard about the city having to approve the development before construction began is true. This review might have been a rather cursory comparison of the plan to a checklist of requirements, but again it could have been a long and arduous process involving the city imposing a good number of requirements on the developer. We would have to say that across the U.S., the latter is more likely to occur.

You then asked whether the city is "hands off" after approval of the development. Yes, they are "hands off" in the sense that they do not revisit that original set of conditions imposed on the development's specific site plan, but they are not necessarily "hands off" in terms of zoning, building and maintenance code enforcement, or environmental regulations.

Another possibility is that our condominium development is zoned something called Planned Unit Development or a synonym. In this case the city and developer essentially negotiated conditions for the development and probably signed a development agreement or contract. This could possibly affect the interaction between zoning and your condo association, so check to see what actual zoning district your condo is located in. Usually you can view the map online.

Don't let these details overshadow your enjoyment of your condo. There is quite a low probability of adverse impacts on you as a result of zoning, especially if your buildings are on the new side.

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