We typically think that owning property, particularly real estate, means we can do whatever we want with and on that property.
However, owning property does not mean that we have the full right to use that property in whatever fashion we want. Property ownership includes numerous rights of use and many corresponding limitations on use.
It is easiest to think of the limitations on our uses of property as falling into four, broad categories: neighbors, zoning, development and contracts.
First, we owe certain duties to our neighbors. We can generally use our property however we like, but we cannot use our property in a way that results in the discharge onto neighbors’ properties of contaminants or various, other by-products of business activity. Illustratively, farmers recognize that we cannot allow manure or its component nutrients to flood onto neighboring properties, including into ditches and streams.
Second, many parts of Ohio are zoned. Zoning is a method of collective planning undertaken by municipalities and townships to identify geographies where certain property uses are permitted, and other property uses are excluded. Zoning involves creating a “map” that categorizes the permitted and restricted uses for each tract of real estate, typically grouping common contiguous clusters or neighborhoods (zones) into the same use/restriction structure.
For example, people usually do not want their homes to be right next-door to 24-hour truck stops, and office buildings are not ideally located beside factories. Zoning’s process of identifying certain areas where certain uses of property are permitted or restricted can help to avoid those uncomfortable neighbor relationships and provide for orderly development and growth of communities. Zoning is not perfect, and there can be “special use” exceptions granted in some instances. Nonetheless, zoning is not designed to be used to target the complete preclusion of certain businesses or people.
Third, development restrictions on use of property are similar to neighbor-respect restrictions on use. Many, but not all, development use requirements/restrictions are governed by local building departments and inspectors. Notably, much news has been made lately as Allen County and the City of Lima discuss building departments and their function.
When we desire to improve our property, building and health department regulations and oversight can feel particularly burdensome. However, this government involvement and these restrictions on use almost always ultimately save lives by ensuring quality workmanship in materials and structure erection. I have said many times that people seldom appreciate building inspectors until when (among other times) a structure catches fire and people’s lives are saved because proper fire-retardant materials were used and the building was constructed to stop the unfettered spread of fire.
Fourth, prior owners of our property or we ourselves may have agreed to contractual restrictions on our use of our property. Those restrictions are often in the form of easements, and they are usually recorded at the local courthouse. Between a survey of the property and an examination of the documents at the courthouse (often called a title search), most restrictions can be identified along with those restrictions’ scope and enforceability.
Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at Lee@LeeSchroeder.com or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.