I have a confession to make: I love courtroom shows like The People’s Court. I mean, where else am I going to get my fix of seeing John Morgan’s face thirty times in a half hour? Not A Game of Thrones, I can tell you that!

Now, usually the case is about two unmarried people trying to get “divorced” or a woman suing her sister over $15 or something like that. Pretty compelling, uplifting stuff. Yesterday, though, the case was about a guy leasing a garage to another guy to use as an auto repair facility. It appears, though, that the property was zoned residential, so the judge determined that it was an illegal contract and thus unenforceable. I’d comment more about the episode, but that’s lawyer-y stuff, and this is a blog about land development.

What it got me thinking about, though, is how many people we meet or consult with who misunderstand the difference between what their property is appraised under and what their property is zoned for. I’ve seen experienced real estate professionals mix this up. If you want to maximize the value of your land, minimize your property tax bill, or stay within the bounds of local land use ordinances, it’s important to understand these differences.

Property Appraisal

The county property appraiser is charged with the responsibility to calculate, using established methods of appraisal, the just value of a parcel of land in order that the property can be fairly taxed. The property appraiser will use all information he can find that is relevant to the value of the property: road frontage, land area, building size, neighborhood, use of property, etc. The property appraiser takes all this info, compares it to actual sales data, and comes up with a valuation for each property. I’ll leave the details of this process for another time.

To us, the relevant issue is use. If you look at your property data card at the property appraiser’s office, the use will be identified with something like “PC Code” meaning Property Class code. Our building, for instance, is classified by Citrus County as PC code 12: STORES, OFFICE, RESIDENT COMBO.  That’s because we are in a model home and sales office, so mixed use office and residential. Our building is going to be valued less than the convenience store and gas station two doors down (PC Code 26: SERVICE STATIONS) because you can’t make as much money per square foot in a model home as you can a gas station.

Zoning

The local municipality and/or county (depending on your particular state’s laws) has the authority to provide for the orderly development of land through a comprehensive plan and land development ordinances. These control what you can build, what it has to look like, what business you can have, etc. Most of the time that’s accomplished through a zoning ordinance. (Not always: some places control land use directly through a comprehensive plan, others control appearance or form, not use; but most of the time these end up being indistinguishable from zoning to the layman, so we’ll just call it all zoning here.) Our property is zoned PDR: Planned Residential Development , which means we have a special land use category that applies only to the PUD (Planned Unit Development) we’re in, Citrus Springs, and that special category is “Commercial” which has specific definitions in the plan.

Existing Land Use versus Zoning

The PC code or existing use of the property refers to how the property is actually being used at the moment. It’s oriented toward the past–toward how the land was used when it was appraised. Zoning is oriented toward the future: what can I do with the property going forward? For the most part, whatever the land is currently being used for right now (assuming it was all done on the up and up), it will be able to be used for in the future, no matter what the zoning is. It’s only when you change what you are doing that zoning constrains you. If the actual use and the allowable use don’t match, then we call what you are doing a Nonconforming Use.

A Nonconforming Use is a perfectly legal use of the property and you can sell it or lease it with that use allowed on it. Be aware however that a similar use may not be allowed and expanding the use by adding square footage or a parking lot may not be allowed. But, if you have something that’s been operating for years in a certain way, don’t just assume it’s illegal because the zoning code says something. Contact someone like Achievable Solutions to help you determine what exactly you can do to maintain the value of your property.

Finding Your Zoning

So, how do you find out your zoning? Well, usually your property appraiser will get it right if he reports it on the property card. However, be aware that that is only best available information and it can be wrong–either because it’s been changed or it was transcribed wrong. And some property appraisers don’t report zoning at all.

Your best bet, even if the property appraiser reports zoning, is to go straight to the appropriate planning agency. In Florida, that’s usually either the Board of County Commissioners or the City Council. Call the planning, zoning, or building department in the appropriate jurisdiction and have them verify the zoning on your property.

What if There Are Problems?

What if you’ve always thought that vacant land you have on the corner was commercial and you’ve been paying taxes as if it were for years? Or what if your property is actually zoned residential, but you’ve been running your business there with appropriate licenses and permits? This happens, and more than you might think since most municipalities don’t actually seek out violations of the zoning code unless they are causing a nuisance. Maybe you aren’t allowed chickens in your backyard, but if nobody complains, nobody does anything about it.

That’s where we can help. Achievable Solutions specializes in these types of problems. We can help you understand the appropriate local ordinances and figure out what’s the best way forward: legal recognition of your use, a land use or zoning change, or maybe your land is more valuable doing something else. We look for ways we can assist the local government in accomplishing their Goals and Objectives at the same time that we protect your development rights and maintain or increase the value of your property. Confrontation on land use issues generally only makes the lawyers any money. We can help you cooperate with your local government to make everyone better off.

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