A Brief History of Zoning Laws in North Carolina

In very general terms, zoning laws are about controlling, limiting and regulating use of land. Land, in this sense, includes the land itself, buildings and other structures placed or created on the land, such as ponds and dams. According to historians and scholars, land use limitations and regulations in North Carolina extend all the way back to colonial times. For example, the Colonial Assembly allowed city charters to regulate some types of building construction. An example mentioned is a prohibition of wooden chimneys in the 1740 Edenton charter. See NCpedia article here.

Most landowners probably take little offense at these types of land use regulations and prohibitions. After all, a home-destroying fire is much more likely with a wooden chimney than a stone or brick chimney and fires can be dangerous to buildings and structures on neighboring land. As another historical example, the article linked reproduces a "zoning map" for Beauford, North Carolina from 1800. Interestingly, the map actually uses the word "zoning" and lists several districts including residential, business, public areas, private cemetery and public cemetery. Zoning and land use restrictions became much more popular and necessary as the United States continued to grow and urban areas become more densely populated.

In North Carolina, local communities have generally been authorized to establish land use limits and regulations.

In more modern times, the first statewide zoning laws here in North Carolina were enacted in 1903 and 1905. These acts created a state-wide building code applicable for cities and towns with more than 1000 people and generally regulating building methods and materials. These laws have been amended and expanded several times over the years. For example, changes to the acts made in 1933 created the first truly comprehensive State Building Code and created a Building Council for issuing regulations and enforcement. In the 1950s, the laws were extended to North Carolina county governments allowing counties to establish regional zoning laws and to establish land-use planning boards and commissions. The most recent extensive revisions to the State Building Code were made in 2018.

On the national level, the first comprehensive efforts at creating national zoning standards occurred in the 1920s and were initiated by the US Department of Commerce under the direction of then-Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. For various reasons, the federal government did not and could create a national zoning law. As such, efforts were aimed at creating a uniform law that each state would be encouraged to enact. This was called the "Standard State Zoning Enabling Act" ("SZEA") which was drafted, proposed and issued in 1924. See PDF of the 1926 revised edition here. North Carolina passed its version of the SZEA in 1925. Most states -- including North Carolina -- passed the SZEA without change.

The general goal that was meant to be achieved by the SZEA was the protection of the health, safety, morals and the general welfare of the community. The SZEA had two generalized and basic mechanisms that were to be used to achieve the purposes of zoning:

  • Creating districts or areas where certain land uses were to be concentrated and/or limited
  • Regulating how buildings and structures were to be built

These are the same basic two mechanisms still used in current-era zoning laws. Specific mechanisms identified were these:

  • Restricting the height and number of stories for buildings and structures
  • Limiting the size of buildings
  • Limiting buildings to percentages of land lots
  • Regulating the size of yards, courts and other open spaces
  • Creating “open public spaces”
  • Establishing rules with respect to population density
  • Setting location and use areas/restrictions for trade, industry, residential and other purposes

Again, these same specific mechanisms that can be seen in current-era zoning laws. From a legal standpoint, constitutional challenges to zoning and land use laws were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in case of Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 36 (1926).

Starting in the 1960s, zoning laws and regulations expanded their focus to environmental issues such as air and water pollution. In the 1960s and 1970s, zoning laws began to emphasize economic development to increase community employment and maximize tax revenues. Going further, in 1979 and 1982, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued two decisions that allowed “aesthetics” and “historical preservation” to be the sole reasons for decisions made by local planning and zoning boards.

While zoning and community planning are generally popular, such can be quite frustrating and damaging to individual landowners. This is particularly true when a new zoning restriction is enacted. Generally speaking, existing land-use restrictions are "priced-into" the value of land. This is not the case with new restrictions and limitations which can severely impact the value of any given property. The legal issue involves whether a particular zoning restriction is an unconstitutional "taking" of land without payment of fair and just compensation. Recently, the pendulum has been somewhat swinging back in favor of individual landowners as, in some cases, new zoning laws have been deemed to be regulatory "takings" entitling landowners to compensation.

Contact Experienced Mecklenburg County Land Use Attorneys Today

For more information, and to schedule a confidential consultation with experienced and dedicated land use and property law attorneys in Charlotte, contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC. Use our “Contact” page or give us a call at 704-370-2828. We handle land use, zoning and condemnation legal matters in Mecklenburg County and elsewhere in North Carolina. We have offices in Charlotte, Lake Norman, and Union County.