What Does it Mean to be Grandfathered

Have you ever seen a land use that looks completely out of place, such as a convenience store or auto body shop in a residential district? If you ask the owner of the business how they are allowed to do this, they will tell you that their business or land use was “grandfathered.” What does this mean?

Zoning regulations have not existed forever; in fact, zoning similar land uses into different districts is a relatively recent phenomenon. Moreover, as cities expand they take in new territory that was previously unzoned and unregulated. In the vast majority of cases, property owners who are using their property in conformity with the law that existed at the time they are zoned are allowed to continue using their property in that manner under the new zoning regulations. This is called a “legally existing nonconforming use,” and the owner is ordinarily allowed to continue using his property in that fashion as long as he does not expand the nonconforming use or change to a different nonconforming use. This is what people mean when they say that a property or business or land use has been “grandfathered.”

The owner of property upon which a legal nonconforming use exists must take care to obey all zoning and land use regulations affecting the property. In particular, the owner should consult with city development or code enforcement officials if the owner wishes to expand an existing building or build a new building on the property, or otherwise visibly change the way in which the property is used. Such changes can terminate the legal nonconforming status of the property, and change it into an illegal zoning violation. In most cities, cessation of the legal nonconforming use for more than six months is considered an abandonment of the right to use the property in that fashion. Once the legal nonconforming status of the property is terminated, the property must thereafter be used in strict conformance with the current zoning and land use regulations.

At Bailey & Galyen, we have attorneys with decades of experience in land use and zoning matters who are available to assist property owners with any municipal land use or zoning issues.