What Is “Spot Zoning”?

Having served as a commissioner on a local zoning board, it was often argued that a proposed site or land use was “spot zoning” and therefore should not be approved.  But what does that really mean?  First, spot zoning is not necessarily illegal in North Carolina so long as there is a reasonable basis for the zoning designation.  But what exactly is spot zoning? In Blades v. City of Raleigh, 280 N.C. 531, 187 S.E.2d 35, spot zoning is defined as follows:

A zoning ordinance, or amendment, which singles out and reclassifies a relatively small tract owned by a single person and surrounded by a much larger area uniformly zoned, so as to impose upon the small tract greater restrictions than those imposed upon the larger area, or so as to relieve the small tract from restrictions to which the rest of the area is subjected, is called “spot zoning.” It is beyond the authority of the municipality, in the absence of a clear showing of a reasonable basis for such distinction.

In short, is the proposed zoning change totally out of character with the surrounding land uses or comprehensive plan as outlined with the local municipality?  For example, what if a proposed site is to be rezoned to some sort of intense industrial use, but is otherwise surrounded by single family homes? This smells like spot zoning, but is it?  Maybe, but maybe not.  As mentioned in Blades there can be a showing of a reasonable basis for the zoning classification. NCGS § 160D-605(b) gives examples of considerations that can be taken when considering the reasonableness of the proposed use, such as “(i) the size, physical conditions, and other attributes of the area proposed to be rezoned, (ii) the benefits and detriments to the landowners, the neighbors, and the surrounding community, (iii) the relationship between the current actual and permissible development on the tract and adjoining areas and the development that would be permissible under the proposed amendment; (iv) why the action taken is in the public interest; and (v) any changed conditions warranting the amendment.”

So it isn’t quite as simple as looking at the properties that surround the proposed rezoning site, which is what commissioners hear most often.  I can’t tell you how many times that it was pointed out in my time as a zoning commissioner that because a particular site was surrounded by different land uses, that the proposal should be denied as “spot zoning”.  That just simply isn’t the definition of spot zoning, nor the determining factor of reasonableness. 

Every parcel of property is unique, with characteristics that may or may not make it appropriate for a rezoning based on your particular municipality’s comprehensive plan for land development.  Should you have any questions regarding spot zoning or rezoning applications generally, you may reach out to one our land use and zoning section at Law Firm Carolinas. 

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