North Carolina Legislature Revamps Zoning Regulation Statutes

Land use regulation affects everyone in one manner or another.  Our homes, schools, businesses, roads and parks are all subject to local government regulation as to their location, construction and how they may be used.  In North Carolina, all city and county zoning and planning regulations derive their power from state law.  That is, if a city or county cannot find authority within state statutes to take a particular action, it may not do so unless and until the legislature grants such authority.

NC Zoning Regulations

The state of North Carolina grants zoning authority primarily under two sections of the General Statutes: Article 19 of Chapter 160A for cities; and Article 18 of Chapter 153A for counties.  These provisions were compiled into these chapters in 1973, and in the decades since then provisions have been added, amended and repealed to become what nearly everyone agrees is a very disorganized and often confusing compilation of regulations.  Local governments had difficulty determining how to validly adopt and administer ordinances based upon this hodgepodge of laws.  Developers were often similarly bewildered.

As early as 2015, efforts began to “reorganize, consolidate, clarify and modernize” statutes related to local land use planning and zoning regulations.  On July 11, 2019 Governor Cooper signed into law Session Law 2019-111, creating a new chapter of the General Statutes, Chapter 160D, containing 14 Articles and additional statutes clarifying and conforming statutes contained in other chapters of the General Statutes.  The former Chapters regulating local land use planning are repealed as of the effective date of the new law, January 1, 2021.

A New Chapter

As described in the North Carolina School of Government’s Legislative Reporting Service, here are some highlights of Chapter 160D:

  • Includes a new Definitions section, defining terms such as bona fide farm purposes, conditional zoning, etc.
  • Clarifies the law regarding vested rights.
  • Contains provisions governing the subject matter and procedure for adopting moratoria on development.
  • Amends Conflicts of Interest laws as they apply to local elected and appointed officials.
  • Amends the law regarding the exercise by cities of extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) over zoning.
  • Brings together provisions for the establishment and procedures for Planning Boards, Boards of Adjustment, Historic Preservation Boards and Appearance Commissions.
  • Requires all members of appointed boards to take an oath of office.
  • Establishes sunset provisions for substantial commencement of work following development approval.
  • Provides for appeals of administrative decisions and includes timelines and procedures for such appeals.
  • Includes Requirements and Procedures for Quasi-Judicial hearings for some land use decisions, such as appeals of administrative decisions, special use permits and variances.
  • Restates requirements for Comprehensive Plans as a condition for enforcement and application of zoning ordinances. Allows for the adoption and use of narrower comprehensive plans to cover smaller geographic areas within a jurisdiction or to deal with subjects such as transportation and greenspace preservation.
  • The procedures for adopting, amending or repealing Development Regulations are clarified, particularly with regard to notice requirements.
  • Classifications of Zoning Districts are limited to the following: 1) conventional districts; 2) conditional districts; 3) farm-based districts; 4) overlay districts; and 5) special districts allowed by Charters.
  • Allows administrative staff changes for minor modifications in conditional districts and for special use permits.
  • Consolidates and clarifies Subdivision Regulation Ordinances.
  • Chapter 160D also provides for regulation of particular kinds of land uses (e.g., adult businesses, agricultural uses, etc.), manufactured and modular homes, historic districts, environmental regulation, wireless telecommunication facilities, community appearance commissions, development agreements, solar collectors, and more.
  • Articles under Chapter 160D also address Building Code Enforcement, Minimum Housing Codes, Open Space Acquisition and Community Development.

Compliance with the provisions of Chapter 160D will require nearly all counties and municipalities to adopt and/or amend their land development regulations as of the effective date of this legislation, January 1, 2021. Land developers may see changes prior to this date.  It is recommended that developers consult with county and municipal staff to stay current on local regulation changes.  Blanco Tackabery has attorneys who are skilled in this area to assist you.


About the Author

Bowen C. Houff

Bo has been practicing law for over 30 years. His practice is concentrated primarily in the areas of municipal law, zoning and business litigation. He regularly represents Municipal councils Boards and committees as well as developers seeking rezoning of land, special and conditional use permits and favorable interpretations of zoning ordinances.