What Is Land Use Law?

R. Kimball

Land use law regulates the use of land in a given jurisdiction. Each jurisdiction may create laws that specify how a given piece of land is to be used. Laws may be created at a regional or local level. Most countries have a basic legal system of land use regulations.

The more urban an area becomes, the larger the number of land use laws.
The more urban an area becomes, the larger the number of land use laws.

Some countries' legal systems are based upon common law and others are based upon the Napoleonic Code. At a basic level, the difference appears to be that in common law jurisdictions, most land is titled, and the landowner pays the government a fee for having title to such land. In those jurisdictions using the Napoleonic Code, generally, the land is covered under a rights of possession legal scheme, where the country owns most land and the person possessing the land may stay on such land without paying the government for permission to use it. Many countries under the Napoleonic Code have moved to a joint scheme that includes titled land and rights of possession land.

Land use law develops in each jurisdiction as it changes from a rural to an urban area. The more urban an area becomes, the larger the number of land use laws. The regional government creates laws that protect large areas of land. Local governments might create a development plan for the given locality.

Development plans or zoning ordinances are different forms of land use law. Each determines how a specific piece of land may be used or developed. The city or county government may designate an area as an urban development area where a high concentration of people and businesses will be located. Another area may be designated as low usage so that only a small number of people or businesses may use such land. Still other areas may be designated as reserves or buffer zones, and these lands may only be used as designated in the laws that created the reserve or buffer zone.

Individuals and governments may sue landowners under a given land use law for improper use of a piece of land. The landowner must then work out a settlement or change the manner in which a piece of land is used so that it is in line with the given land use law. Developers hoping to use a piece of land in a manner outside of its current zoning ordinance must go before the government and the community to request a zoning variance.

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