Suitable Zones to Build Private School

by Carlos G Reverte
(Clayton, CA)

Visitor Question: In Contra Costa (East Bay), can I build a private school in a very-low-density,residential-zoned land with multiple lots?

Editors' Reply:

Carlos, you really have to ask Contra Costa that question. Many times you can find your local zoning ordinance on-line, and you can try that if it's difficult for you to make a trip to your local city hall during business hours.

You may have seen some chatter on the website about private, religious schools having a little bit more leeway than would otherwise be the case for schools. In some states, courts are very reluctant to side with a government against a religious organization in a zoning matter.

However, you don't tell us if the private school you have in mind is a religious school (parochial school) or simply private, in that students must pay to attend.

Let's assume for the rest of the answer that you're talking about just a private school, distinguished by paying students and the ability to admit or deny students at will.

At least three types of regulations that your local municipality may have enacted affect the answer to your question:

1) zoning regulations,

2) a building code, and possibly

3) subdivision regulation.

Let's dispose of building codes first. Only rarely would a building code tell you where you can build a school; usually it relates to the quality standards of the actual construction.

It would tell you how many windows you must have, what kinds of exits are required, whether you must install sprinkler systems, the types of building materials permitted, any seismic (earthquake proofing) regulations you would be required to follow, and so forth.

The next easiest one is subdivision regulations, and we only mentioned that because you said that you were planning to assemble several residential lots.

It would be somewhat rare for a subdivision regulation to prohibit grouping together of lots for a single building, but it's possible.

In a few states the plat, as the official map of the subdivision is called, is allowed to show almost any kind of self-imposed restriction that seemed reasonable at the time. You can find the plat at your county's court house.

That leaves zoning, which would be the typical way that the location of land uses is governed. Especially older and simpler zoning ordinances sometimes allow schools in any residential zone.

However, we suspect that in California, that's probably not the case. Often a school would require an institutional zoning category--every town can make up its own names of the zoning districts, you know.

So you really must find out the zoning regulation, if any, that applies to the residential lots you are thinking about.

If the zoning does not allow for a private school, then you have a right to apply or petition for a rezoning.

Whether you would try to rezone would depend on how much time you have, and more importantly the money required if you have to hire a lawyer, and your taste for the prospect of controversy.

Another possibility is that while the municipal regulations we just described might permit the private school, the private deed restrictions or covenants that go with the subdivision might prohibit any use other than single-family residential.

Determining whether there are any covenants against what you are trying to do would be another reason to visit your county court house. If you find out that there is a subdivision association that collects dues, this could be your clue that there is some likelihood of such restrictive covenants.

Poke around on the website some more, especially in the zoning, deed restrictions, and code enforcement sections, to understand some of these concepts further.

Then our best advice is to visit city hall to ask your question in person, and if there is the slightly chance that you won't get what you want, you need to hire a good attorney that specializes in land use law.

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