Zoning codes are a set of rules that regulate what can and can’t be done on a particular piece of property. They’re established and enforced at the city level. In California, you can find zoning codes for virtually every city in the city’s municipal code.
Most cities also provide an online copy of their zoning map which gives you a visual of the city with a zoning overlay. I’ll use the City of Dublin in California as an example throughout this post. Dublin provides a zoning map, and you can find more information on their zoning code in the municipal code.
Zoning districts for the City of Dublin
Single Family Residential (R-1)
Two Family Residential (R-2)
Multi-Family Residential (R-M)
Planned Development (PD)
Commercial Office (C-O)
Neighborhood Commercial (C-N)
Retail Commercial (C-1)
General Commercial (C-2)
Industrial Park (M-P)
Light Industrial (M-1)
Heavy Industrial (M-2)
The zoning code for Dublin, and most other cities, is broken up into four categories—residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural.
Within these categories are districts, for example “Single Family Residential.” Each district has a specific set of rules for development and construction on any piece of property within its boundaries. You’ll also notice that each district has a letter/number designation.
[NOTE: PD zoning can be a bit confusing. It’s a designation that allows a property to be developed that doesn’t fit into an established zoning district. It’s used by cities to provide some flexibility for properties that require unique land plans.]
You may have noticed Dublin’s zoning code includes some other zoning designations that aren’t included here. If not, they’re on the zoning map as commercial corridor, downtown Dublin, historic overlay, and a few more.
These additional overlays are just another layer of regulations specific to a certain area of the city.
It’s important to note that the names of zoning districts and overlays, their designations, and their specific rules change with every city. They’re generally similar, but you’ll have to dig in to get specifics on each cities’ rules.
What zoning codes mean for you
Let’s say you own an acre of raw land in Dublin and it’s zoned R-1 (Single Family Residential). You want to know what you can build on your property, so you consult the zoning code again. Except this time, you’re looking for specific building regulations based on your zoning.
For Dublin, these are called Residential Development Regulations but again, each city varies a bit with the language they use. The development regulations set out minimum lot size, setback requirements, height limits, etc.
Zoning codes are all well and good, but in the real world, they give you close to zero power in terms of developing your property. Of course, it’s better to have a zoning that allows you to do what you want. But you’re still going to need discretionary approvals from your city.
Further, zoning codes are subordinate to something called general plan land use designations. Land use designations are beyond the scope of this post, but we’ll be getting into those later.
Just know that zoning codes give you an idea of what you could legally build on your property, provided the city approves of your project.