In property rights disputes, I have typically represented a land owner who is being impacted by government regulation. A client who consults with me under these circumstances has discovered that a local branch of government is trying to stop a property use or right that the owner thought could not be interfered with. The property owner is often right about this.
Changes in the Law
Zoning ordinances are often changed so that they become more restrictive over time. For example, the requirement for lot setback may be increased in a newly adopted ordinance. The new ordinance may provide that structures on lots in a specific zone cannot be built closer than 25 feet from the front boundary of a lot. However, an existing home which is 15 feet from the front of the lot does not have to be modified so that it conforms to the new ordinance. Rather, under State law (and typically local ordinance) it has the status of a legal non-conforming structure. The owner has a right to continue to own it without changing its dimensions and this right is conveyed to the next owner if the property is sold. There are also pre-existing uses which may be prohibited under a new ordinance. But a property owner has a vested right to continue the previous use as a legal non-conforming use.
Knowing Your Rights
Nonconforming structures and, particularly, nonconforming uses are often a source of conflict between a property owner and the municipality. This is a complex and somewhat obscure area of the law. Municipal clerks may be well meaning when they answer your questions, but the answers you get depends on what questions you ask. An attorney who is a general practitioner may not know what to ask or how to help you because he or she may only deal with these issues once every few years. This is one of those areas of the law which requires an attorney who specializes in zoning and land use law. An attorney canít fight for your rights unless he knows what rights you have.
I Specialize in Zoning and Land Use Law
I have worked on many cases involving legal nonconforming structures and legal nonconforming uses. If you are encountering challenges regarding these issues, it is wise to engage counsel early in the process. An attorney who specializes in this area of the law knows how to develop a proper record during municipal proceedings. This can be critical because court appeals from land use decisions are often limited to the record below. In other words, if you forgot (or didnít know how) to make important information a part of the record, the judge deciding the appeal will never know about it because it cannot be added later. If you are unsure about your legal rights in regard to what you are allowed to do on your land or what size of building might be allowed, please contact me for a consultation.