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Real Estate Development Zoning Research Process - Part 1 of a 2 Part Series

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In a previous article, we described the site selection and project programming process in a real estate development project. The next step in to check the zoning and see what you can build at that location.

We'll do this in two posts. In this first post I will show you how to search for what zone your site is in for a particular city or county. The next post will show you how to research what you can actually build once you know what zone your site is in.

Zoning is one of the more obscure aspects of the development process, but in our experience, once you acquire significant strategic knowledge and create practices around this research and identification process, the value and marginal utility to be generated can be very significant.

You can hire an architect to do this zoning research for you, but as a developer a big part of your "value add" is to identify strategically what areas have the zoning that you need, or where you found a site and the zoning works for what you want to build. An architect is best left to refine the research and the minute details of the zoning code, after you as the developer have found the site, identified the zoning, done the math to determine that the zoning density, site area, and unit count that work for your type of development project. Plus, you can do this much quicker then they can and you keep your predevelopment costs down by doing the work yourself. Ultimately, as a deal maker, you are in the best position to move first/move fast to find sites and and make initial zoning assessments that work for you as a developer.

Once you have identified a piece of land that is in the neighborhood that you are focused on, or found a site, you then want to research the zoning of the property.

Now, you may say: shouldn't you check zoning first and then find a site you want in that area? The answer is yes, but it can be done either way: find the zoning then the site, or find the site check the zoning.

If you are willing to farm an area with the correct zoning that's great, but in our experience with market ups and downs that are always part of our thinking and action as a developer, we want to focus on sites that are ready to transact. Maybe you find them on LoopNet, or the MLS and Zillow, or through your networks of help - brokers, bird dogs, wholesalers, etc. Either way, you want to be able to work on projects and land sites that can move forward with expediency. Either of these methods works, you just need to keep time to market in mind as you make this decision for yourself.

You have identified your site, now you want to check the zoning:

1. Find out what city it's located in. Be very careful to use mapping systems that have the correct data for what city or municipality the site is located in. Google Maps does not suffice for this, as a mailing address, or Gmap address may name a specific city, but it's jurisdictionally in another city or county.


Zoning Research Process

This says city of Los Angeles, but it's really in the unincorporated county of Los Angeles.

This difference is critical, as all zoning regulations are specific to the city or county that your site is in, and every city's zoning codes are different. As well, the time to process entitlements (project approvals related to zoning and land use) may be significantly different. In this case, the county of Los Angles is notorious for being slow.

You can start with GMap search, then as part of your zoning check, you'll identify where the site in the city you have identified or selected.

2. Next, as you've identified the city or county that you believe the site is located in, you need to check the zoning (and by default if the site is in that actual city)

There are two main ways to do this:

1. Google search for this term "city of xxxxx zoning map". So for this example we'll use a random city in Orange County - the city of Stanton. Do the Google search and you will get this:

Zoning Research Process1

Here you'll see the city website, with a link to "General Plan-Land Use" where it lists in small print link text "Zoning Maps". Click on that and your see this:

Zoning Research Process2

Click on the link that says "Official Zoning Map" and you'll then see this:

City of Stanton Zoning Map

Click on the image for link to actual zoning map

Then search for your site on this map. You'll have to cross reference streets named on the map and then find your site. The best way is to find the nearest major intersection actually listed on the map, then your street, then the outline of your site. It's tricky but can be done. If you determine that your site IS NOT on this map, then you need to move to the city that covers your site. In the sample map, you can see that they identify adjacent cites on the map, although not all zoning maps do this. Once you have determined that your site is on this map then you can move on to the next step.

Next, see what color the map is where your site is located and then look at the legend on the map to identify the zone your site is in. Let's pick the dark gold color for example purposes and you'll get "High Density Residential". This is your zoning designation for the site.

2. For larger cities or counties, some cities have GIS (Geographic Information Systems) websites or web portals. In the case of the county of Los Angeles it's called "Z-Net". In this case, you go to the website, and you'll usually see a search box where you can search by site address or Assessor Parcel Number and this brings up information on the site including the zoning.

3. You can call the city or county planning department and ask them what zone your site is in. In our experience, and in bigger cities, the planners almost never answer the phone. In smaller cities a phone call may work, or better yet, an in person "over the counter" visit to check zoning.

Sometime email works, but in any case, it's too slow for us. We want to be moving with velocity and be making assessments of sites rapidly. Both to be reviewing and assessing lots of site everyday, or a site may come on the market and you need to make assessments rapidly because your competitors are also looking at the site.

Next article will cover how to determine what is allowed to be built on your site given the present zoning.

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