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Houston: The City Without Zoning – Five Things to Know

For our first “City Systems Series” we decided to go with the outlier, Houston. As the fourth largest city in the nation, Houston is the only major U.S. city that doesn’t have a zoning ordinance. It’s true, but that doesn’t mean they are without land use regulations that act much like zoning. Our certified zoning analysts have helped a number of clients overcome zoning challenges in Houston. With this experience, we have uncovered five key considerations to ensure our clients secure the most accurate property information.

1. They DO have land use regulations. Despite their reputation as the city without zoning, they do regulate a myriad of land use issues such as density, buffering, lot size, and historic preservation through their Planning and Development Department. Most of the city’s policies and regulations that act like zoning are applied through subdivision ordinances. These come through as Deed Restrictions on the property, which create rules similar to zoning regulations. Deed restrictions are established at the time the property is created or altered and help prevent issues like a corner store within a residential neighborhood.

To fill in any gaps left by the lack of land use zoning, civic and private organizations like super neighborhoods (neighborhood planning areas within the city), and homeowner’s associations implement their own regulations.

2. Unincorporated Towns. It’s important to note there are numerous unincorporated towns within and surrounding the Houston metro area. And while these towns have their own land use codes, if they lie within the very large Houston annexation area, they will be subject to some of Houston’s ordinances, like subdivision laws, in addition to their town’s land use codes.

3. The Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. Houston also has something called a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. Designed to establish and attract new investments, these areas retain property tax revenue for uses within their borders. As it relates to zoning and land use regulations, developing property within these zones requires an additional level of understanding to ensure the project meets all requirements.

4. Houston has no Comprehensive Plan. This isn’t earth-shattering news, but the absence of a comprehensive plan means there is no policy document to inform ordinance creation. Comprehensive plans usually provide an idea of what informs the zoning choices and what will guide future development. Houston’s approach is accomplished through individual neighborhood planning, which makes zoning more complex because rather than referring to a comprehensive plan, you need to know the specific overlay zone where your project lies.

5. Obtaining the No-zoning Letter. The city of Houston provides a simple letter confirming the city does not have a zoning ordinance, but the letter doesn’t address separately filed restrictions applicable to the property. Obtaining this information can be a challenge because you must accurately analyze the property to know what sort of land use actions could exist and subsequently affect the property when it comes to restricting use and development. These restrictions, which include deed restrictions, board approvals, variances, or conditional uses, must be requested specifically through the property channels the jurisdiction has established.

Houston’s reputation as the city without zoning doesn’t necessarily ring true. They do regulate, but these regulations come from several different entities, and reconciling each can be challenging. This is why you should enlist ZRG to ensure you get exactly what you need. Check out our services page for more information, or give us a call at (253) 203-3152.


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