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The Lay of the Land is a blog series by Real Estate and Land Use practice chair, Karen Cohen, on land use law starting with “the basics.”  This first post discusses what land use law is and exactly what land use lawyers do.  Upcoming articles will review the land use regulatory framework in Virginia, and provide an explanation of conditional zoning (rezonings and proffers, special permits, etc.), and permitting basics.  More in-depth land use topics will follow.

What Is Land Use Law?

Land use law is the body of state, local and federal laws and regulations governing the development and use of land (and buildings or structures on the land) and the planning of a community’s future land uses.  Land use and development of the built environment is intertwined with nearly every aspect of human existence – where people live and work; where goods are manufactured; access to water and other natural resources; how people travel from place to place; and where people gather for religious or civic purposes, education, and entertainment.  Because land use touches so many aspects of life, the legal framework is necessarily interdisciplinary.

Consider, for example, an application by a landowner for a special use permit to build a manufacturing facility on vacant land, or a dispute involving residents opposed to the expansion of a parking lot on church property adjacent to their neighborhood.  These land use matters potentially implicate zoning law, environmental law, and constitutional law.  In the land use context, constitutional issues often arise with respect to claims relating to the impact of land use restrictions on speech or religious exercise under the First Amendment, takings claims under the Fifth Amendment, and due process and equal protection claims under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, arising from land use restrictions imposed by a local government or from a local governing body’s denial or unlawful conditioning of the approval of a particular project.

Within this interdisciplinary legal framework, the practice of land use law involves interaction with a wide variety of professionals and groups, including local government officials, planners, civil engineers, traffic engineers, environmental and archaeology consultants, architects, developers, activists and citizen associations.  In addition to analyzing the law and advising their clients, land use lawyers spend their time meeting or communicating with the aforementioned professionals, presenting information to citizens’ groups about clients’ pending projects, and attending public hearings on behalf of clients.  As land use lawyers, we enjoy the multidisciplinary nature of the practice and the interaction with allied professionals on the team to strategize and work collectively to resolve land use issues for our clients.

We also enjoy helping our clients navigate what can be a confusing and Byzantine process.  Whether you need assistance with a land use application, representation before a Board of Zoning Appeals, or representation in connection with a land use dispute in state or federal court, Protorae Law attorneys can help you with your land use and zoning needs.