Don’t Zone Out

Every property has a special designation that defines how it can be used, and knowing this before you buy the property can make a huge difference in what you can do after you buy it. I’m talking about zoning. Here in Mendocino County the following zoning categories exist: residential, civic, commercial, industrial, agricultural, and extractive.

The county defines a zone as “an area to which a uniform set of regulations relating to use of the land and the size of and location of buildings on the land, in order to assure the health, safety and general welfare of the County applies.”

Within the big categories, there are sub-categories. For example, residential zones are typically broken down based on how many residences or “units” are allowed per square foot.

R-1 Zoning says the minimum lot size upon which a second unit may be placed is 5,000 square feet for an interior lot, and 7,000 square feet for a corner lot.

R-2 Zoning says it’s okay to have a single-family dwelling on a 3,000 square foot lot.

R-3 Zoning says for each family unit intended to occupy any building or group of buildings on such building site area, there shall be at least 1,500 square feet of site lot.

And so on. There are way too many designations for me to provide all the details of each subcategory, but basically for residential zoning it comes down to density. If you want to build an apartment complex, be sure you don’t buy property zoned where you can only build one unit per 5,000 square foot lot.

Zoning not only limits the structures you can build on a property, but also whether you can have animals and livestock, and if so, how many. I know a family who bought property so they could have their horse there. Zoning required a minimum of 40,000 square feet to keep a horse, but it was only after the deal closed that they realized the property was 39,990 square feet. Thanks to a complaining neighbor, the horse could not stay.

Once a property is zoned a certain way, it does not need to remain that way forever. In fact, Mendocino County housing officials are struggling to comply with the stipulations of a recent lawsuit by actively seeking land to re-zone to R-3, so higher density, lower cost housing can be built. County officials are also busy creating a new commercial designation, which if implemented, will prevent chain retail and restaurant businesses from locating in the vast majority of unincorporated Mendocino County. The exception to this prohibition would be in the area along Highway 101 and north of Ukiah up to Lake Mendocino Drive.

Zoning designations are critically important to prospective new businesses, because they must know whether their project is in compliance with zoning ordinances well before beginning expensive and time-consuming research. They invest in projects under the assumption that zoning and building codes will remain constant. Sadly, because our city and county officials have not always agreed with their predecessors, Mendocino County has been inconsistent with regard to zoning requirements, costing some developers hundreds of thousands of dollars. While those who do not want any growth here may celebrate when they hear this, I’d like to remind them that no growth leads to economic stagnation. If investors do not invest here because they do not trust our government to keep its word, our town will slowly crumble. No one will take the risk of building new houses here when they can purchase land in the next county and build with little to no worry that regulations will change like quicksand under their feet.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at or visit If I use your suggestion in a column, I’ll send you’re a $5.00 gift card to Schat’s Bakery. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.

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