ALTA Surveys – Importance of Commercial Zoning

April 10, 2018

Why Zoning Matters for Commercial Real Estate

For many years, reporting of zoning information has been a source of disagreement between the surveying industry and the parties who review the survey. The Minimum Standards Detail Requirements clearly state what the surveyor can provide in preparation of the ALTA/NSPS Land Title Survey and what zoning information the client can request. While this is clearly stated, the confusion comes from the changes that have been made over the years to the Minimum Standards. There also has been confusion in the responsibility of the surveyors. Some surveyors are willing to report zoning matters outside of the realm of their expertise, which can compromise their liability.

If the client requests zoning information to be included in the survey, Optional Table A Item, 6(a) and/or 6(b) can be requested as a part of the scope of service. If 6(a) is included, it’s important to note that the client is held responsible for providing the surveyor with a zoning report or letter that includes the following:

  • Current zoning classification
  • Setback requirements
  • Height and floor space area restrictions
  • Parking requirements

The surveyor would then use this information and report the exacting information in a notation on the drawing or survey plat with the date and source of the information.

If 6(b) is requested, the client would also need to provide a zoning report or letter that states the building setback requirements. It is then the responsibility of the surveyors to graphically depict the building setback requirements on the survey plat or drawing. It is important to note that upon the surveyor’s review of the provided information, they may elect to not plot the setbacks due to the configuration of the property or because of the ambiguity of a definition in the zoning report.

For example, if the information provided by the client states that the front setback line is 50 feet and the property is on a corner, the surveyor has no way of knowing what the zoning authority considers the front of the property or if both sides facing the street are considered the front. If the surveyor made an assumption and is incorrect on the setback lines, the surveyor has attempted to interpret the zoning law or code and could be liable.

Zoning Setback Confusion

While there was once a simple, one-line definition for zoning setback lines, the definition can now encompass several paragraphs of qualifications for specific uses of the subject property or classifications or uses of adjoining properties. If the setback information is presented in the zoning report or letter in a way that asks the surveyor to make a determination of the true setback, it is asking them to present a legal opinion.

In addition to Optional Table A Items 6(a) and/or 6(b), the following Optional Table A Items should be considered:

  • Item 4 - gross land area
  • Item 7(b1) - square footage of buildings (b2) other defined areas
  • Item 7(c) - building height
  • Item 9 - parking

Including these items will help determine compliance with the applicable zoning requirements. It’s important to note that the surveyors cannot make the compliance determinations by themselves, because doing so would be viewed as practicing the law, not surveying. By requesting the additional Table A items, the surveyor is only responsible for providing the needed information to allow others to make compliance determinations.

Zoning Company Needs

With the complexities of today’s zoning classifications, zoning codes and laws have created a need for zoning companies in the commercial real estate industry to provide zoning letters and reports. As recent as 15 years ago, surveyors would research and report zoning information as a part of the ALTA survey. That is no longer accepted protocol. If the transaction parties would like to review the information, they should reference the expertise of a national zoning company, such as Bock & Clark.

Are you interested in learning more about our zoning services? Request a quote today, or contact us for more information.