Accessory Apartment. An accessory apartment is a second residential unit that may be contained within an existing single-family home, garage, or carriage house. An accessory apartment is usually required to be a complete housekeeping unit that can function independently with separate access, kitchen, bedroom, and sanitary facilities.

Accessory Use. An accessory use is the use of land that is subordinate, incidental to, and customarily found in connection with the principal use allowed on a lot by the zoning law. A garage is incidental to the principal use of a lot as a single-family residence and customarily found on a single-family parcel.

Action. An action is, under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, any project or physical activity that is directly undertaken, funded, or approved by a state or local agency that may affect the environment. Actions include planning and policy-making activities and the adoption of rules and regulations that may affect the environment.

Administrative Body. Administrative bodies are created by local legislatures to undertake administrative functions such as the review of applications for site plans, subdivisions, and special use permits. See “Reviewing Board.”

Adult Use. An adult use is a business that provides sexual entertainment or services to customers. Adult uses include: X-rated video shops and bookstores, live or video peep shows, topless or fully nude dancing establishments, combination book/video and “marital aid” stores, non-medical massage parlors, hot oil salons, nude modeling studios, hourly motels, body painting studios, swingers clubs, X-rated movie theaters, escort service clubs, and combinations thereof.

Advisory Opinion. An advisory opinion is a report by a local administrative body, which does not have the authority to issue permits or adopt laws and regulations, prepared for the consideration by a local body that does.

Aesthetic Resources. Natural resources such as open vistas, woods, scenic viewsheds, and attractive mad-made settings, whose appearance is an important ingredient in the quality of life in a community.

Affordable Housing. Housing developed through some combination of zoning incentives, cost-effective construction techniques, and governmental subsidies that can be rented or purchased by households who cannot afford market rate housing in the community.

Agency. An agency, under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), is any state or local agency, including zoning boards of appeals, local legislatures, planning boards, and, under certain circumstances, even building inspectors, that make discretionary decisions that may affect the environment. These agencies are subject to SEQRA regulations whenever taking an “action.”

Aggrieved Party. Only aggrieved parties may appeal a reviewing body or local legislature’s land use decision to the courts. The decision must result in some demonstrable harm to the party that is different from the impact of the decision on the community as a whole.

Agricultural Land Protection. Any law, regulation, board, or process that has as its objective the preservation of farming on land dedicated to agricultural use. Examples include agricultural zoning, farmland preservation boards, property tax relief for farmers, and anti-nuisance laws.

Agricultural Zoning District. An agricultural zoning district is a designated portion of the municipality where agricultural uses are permitted as-of-right and non-farm land uses are either prohibited or allowed subject to limitations or conditions imposed to protect the business of agriculture.

Amortization of Nonconforming Uses. Nonconforming uses that are particularly inconsistent with zoning districts within which they exist and not immediately dangerous to public health or safety may be terminated or amortized within a prescribed number of years. This amortization period allows the landowner to recoup some or all of his/her investment in the offensive nonconforming use.

Appellate Jurisdiction. A zoning board of appeals has appellate jurisdiction to review determinations of the zoning enforcement officer. Denials of building permits and determinations that proposed land uses do not meet the zoning law’s standards may be appealed to the zoning board of appeals. Land use decisions of the zoning board of appeals, planning board, and local legislature may be appealed to the courts, which exercise appellate jurisdiction over them.

Approval. An approval is a discretionary decision made by a local agency to issue a permit, certificate, license, lease, or other entitlement or to otherwise authorize a proposed project or activity.

Architectural Review Board. An architectural review board is a body that reviews proposed developments for their architectural congruity with surrounding developments and either renders an advisory opinion on the matter or is authorized to issue or deny a permit. Its review is based upon design criteria or standards adopted by the local legislature.

Area Variance. This is a variance that allows for the use of land in a way that is not permitted by the dimensional or physical requirements of the zoning law. This type of variance is needed when a building application does not comply with the setback, height, lot, or area requirements of the zoning ordinance. For example, if an owner wants to build an addition to a house that encroaches into the side-yard setback area, that owner must apply to the zoning board of appeals for an area variance.

Article 78 Proceeding. An Article 78 Proceeding refers to an article of the Civil Practice Law and Rules that allows aggrieved persons to bring an action against a government body or officer. This device allows review of state and local administrative proceedings in court.

As-of-Right. An as-of-right use is a use of land that is permitted as a principal use in a zoning district. In a single-family district, the construction of a single-family home is an as-of-right use of the lot.


Buffer. A buffer is a designated area of land that is controlled by local regulations to protect an adjacent area from the impacts of development.

Building Area. The building area is the total square footage of a parcel of land that is allowed by the regulations to be covered by buildings and other physical improvements.

Building Code. The building code is the Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code, as modified by local amendments. This code governs the construction details of buildings and other structures in the interests of the safety of the occupants and the public. A local building inspector may not issue a building permit unless the applicant’s construction drawings comply with the provisions of the building code.

Building Height. The building height is the vertical distance from the average elevation of the proposed finished grade along the wall of a building or structure to the highest point of the roof, for flat roofs, or to the mean height between eaves and ridge, for gable, hip, and gambrel roofs.

Building Inspector. The building inspector is the local administrative official charged with the responsibility of administering and enforcing the provisions of the building code. In some communities the building inspector may also be the zoning enforcement officer.

Building Permit. A building permit must be issued by a municipal agency or officer before activities such as construction, alteration, or expansion of buildings or improvements on the land may legally commence.

Bulk Regulations. Bulk regulations are the controls in a zoning district governing the size, location, and dimensions of buildings and improvements on a parcel of land.

Bulk Variance. See “Area Variance.”


Capital Budget. The capital budget is the municipal budget that provides for the construction of capital projects in the community.

Capital Project. Capital projects are construction projects including public buildings, roads, street improvements, lighting, parks, and their improvement or rehabilitation paid for under the community’s capital budget.

Cellular Facilities. An individual cell of a cellular transmission system that includes a base station, antennae, and associated electronic equipment that sends to and receives signals from mobile phones.

Central Business District (CBD). The central business district is the traditional business core of a community, characterized by a relatively high concentration of business activity within a relatively small area. The CBD is usually the retail and service center of a community. Because of its compactness, there is usually an emphasis on pedestrian traffic in the CBD.

Certificate of Occupancy. A certificate of occupancy is a permit that allows a building to be occupied after its construction or improvement. It certifies that the construction conforms to the building code and is satisfactory for occupancy.

City Council. See “Local Legislature.”

Cluster Subdivision. A cluster subdivision is the modification of the arrangement of lots, buildings, and infrastructure permitted by the zoning law to be placed on a parcel of land to be subdivided. This modification results in the placement of buildings and improvements on a part of the land to be subdivided in order to preserve the natural and scenic quality of the remainder of the land.

Components. Components are elements of a comprehensive plan that are suggested by state law.

Comprehensive Plan. A comprehensive plan is a written document that identifies the goals, objectives, principles, guidelines, policies, standards, and strategies for the growth and development of the community.

Condition. A condition is a requirement or qualification that is attached to a reviewing board’s approval of a proposed development project. A condition must be complied with before the local building inspector or department can issue a building permit or certificate of occupancy.

Conditional Use Permit. See “Special Use Permit.”

Conditioned Negative Declaration (CND). Under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, a CND is a negative declaration issued by a “lead agency” for an “unlisted action.” This involves an action that as initially proposed, may result in one or more significant adverse environmental impacts, but mitigation measures are required by the lead agency to modify the proposed action so that no significant adverse environmental impacts will result.

Conservation Advisory Council (CAC). A CAC is created by the local legislature to advise in the development, management, and protection of the community’s natural resources and to prepare an inventory and map of open spaces.

Conservation Board. Once the local legislature has reviewed and approved an open space inventory and map it may designate the Conservation Advisory Committee as a Conservation Board and authorize it to review and comment on land use applications that affect community open space.

Conservation Easement. A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement between a private landowner and a municipal agency or qualified not-for-profit corporation to restrict the development, management, or use of the land. That agency holds the interest and is empowered to enforce its restrictions against the current landowner and all subsequent owners of the land.

Conservation Overlay Zones. In conservation overlay zones, the legislature adopts more stringent standards than those contained in the underlying zoning districts as necessary to preserve identified resources and features in need of conservation or preservation.

Critical Environmental Area (CEA). A CEA is a specific geographic area designated by a state or local agency as having exceptional or unique environmental characteristics. In establishing a CEA, the fragile or threatened environmental conditions in the area are identified so that they will be taken into consideration in the site-specific environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

Cumulative Impact Analysis. In conducting an environmental review of a proposed project, its negative impacts on the environment may be considered in conjunction with those of nearby or related projects to determine whether, cumulatively, their adverse impacts are significant and require the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement.


Decision. A decision is the final determination of a local reviewing body, or administrative agency or officer regarding an application for a permit or approval.

Deed Restrictions. A deed restriction is placed in a deed and restricts the use of the land in some way. These are often imposed to insure that the owner complies with a condition imposed by a land use body.

Density Bonus. See “Incentive Zoning.”

Density. Density is the amount of development per acre on a parcel permitted under the zoning law. The density allowed could be four dwelling units per acre or 40,000 square feet of commercial building floor per acre, for example.

Determination. A determination is a decision rendered by an officer or administrative body on an application or a request for a ruling.

Development Overlay Zones. In development overlay zones, the legislature may provide incentives, such as waivers of certain zoning requirements or density bonuses, for developers who build the type of development desired.

District. A district is a portion of a community identified on the locality’s zoning map within which one or more principal land uses are permitted along with their accessory uses and any special land uses permitted by the zoning provisions for the district.

Dwelling Unit. A dwelling unit is a unit of housing with full housekeeping facilities for a family.


Easement. An easement involves the right to use a parcel of land to benefit an adjacent parcel of land, such as to provide vehicular or pedestrian access to a road or sidewalk. Technically known as an easement appurtenant.

Eminent Domain. Eminent domain is the government’s right to take title to private property for a public use upon the payment of just compensation to the landowner.

Enabling Act. An enabling act is legislation passed by the New York State Legislature authorizing cities, towns, and villages to carry out functions in the public interest. The power to adopt comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances, and land use regulations is delegated to towns, villages, and cities under the Town Law, Village Law, General City Law, and Municipal Home Rule Law.

Environment. The environment is defined broadly under the State Environmental Quality Review Act to include the physical conditions that will be affected by a proposed action, including land, air, water, minerals, flora, fauna, noise, resources of agricultural, archeological, historic or aesthetic significance, existing patterns of population concentration, distribution, or growth, existing community or neighborhood character, and human health.

Environmental Assessment Form (EAF). An EAF, as used in the State Environmental Quality Review Act process, is a form completed by an applicant to assist an agency in determining the environmental significance of a proposed action. A properly completed EAF must contain enough information to describe the proposed action, its location, purpose, and potential impacts on the environment.

Environmental Impact Statements (EIS). An EIS is a written “draft” or “final” document prepared in accordance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act. An EIS provides a means for agencies, project sponsors, and the public to systematically consider significant adverse environmental impacts, alternatives, and mitigation strategies. An EIS facilitates the weighing of social, economic, and environmental factors in the planning and decision-making process. A draft EIS (DEIS) is the initial statement prepared by either the project sponsor or the lead agency and circulated for review and comment before a final EIS (FEIS) is prepared.

Environmental Quality Review. The process that reviewing boards must conduct to determine whether proposed projects may have a significant adverse impact on the environment and, if they do, to study these impacts and identify alternatives and mitigation conditions that protect the environment to the maximum extent practicable.

Environmental Review. The State Environmental Quality Review Act requires local agencies that review applications for land use approvals to take a hard look at the environmental impact of the proposed projects. Where the proposed project may have a significant negative impact on the environment the agency must prepare an environmental impact statement before approving the project. The adoption of comprehensive plans, zoning amendments, and other land use regulations are also subject to environmental review.

Exclusionary Zoning. When a community fails to accommodate, through its zoning law, the provision of affordable types of housing needed to meet proven regional housing needs, that community is said to practice exclusionary zoning.

Executive Session. An executive session is a meeting, or portion of a meeting, that is closed to the public because the topics to be discussed involve real estate, litigation, or sensitive personnel matters.


Facilitation. A process of decision-making guided by a facilitator who insures that all affected individuals and groups are involved in a meaningful way and that the decisions are based on their input and made to achieve their mutual interests. Facilitators may be neutral outside third parties or community leaders trained in the process.

Family. One or more persons occupying a dwelling as a single housekeeping unit.

Final Plat Approval. The final plat approval is the approval by the authorized local reviewing body of a final subdivision drawing or plat that shows the subdivision, proposed improvements, and conditions as specified in the locality’s subdivision regulations and as required by that body in its approval of the preliminary plat.

Floating Zone. A floating zone is a zoning district that is added to the zoning law but that “floats” until an application is made to apply the new district to a certain parcel. Upon the approval of the application, the zoning map is amended to apply the floating district to that parcel of land.

Floodplain. A floodplain is the area on the sides of a stream, river, or watercourse that is subject to periodic flooding. The extent of the floodplain is dependent on soil type, topography, and water flow characteristics.

Floor Area Ratio (FAR). FAR is the gross floor area of all buildings permitted on a lot divided by the area of the lot. In zoning, the permitted building floor area is calculated by multiplying the maximum FAR specified for the zoning district by the total area of the parcel. A permitted FAR of 2 would allow the construction of 80,000 square feet of floor space on 40,000 square feet of land (40,000 x 2 = 80,000).

Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). The freedom of information law requires that the public be provided access to governmental records, including local land use documents, such as photos, maps, designs, drawings, rules, regulations, codes, manuals, reports, files, and opinions. Public access may be denied if it would constitute an invasion of privacy.

Freshwater Wetlands Regulation. These are laws passed by federal, state, and local governments to protect wetlands by limiting the types and extent of activities permitted within wetlands. These laws require landowners to secure permits before conducting many activities, such as draining, filling, or constructing buildings.

Frontage. Zoning laws typically require that developable lots have a specified number of linear feet that front on a dedicated street. A 100-foot frontage requirement means that a lot must have 100 linear feet on the side of the parcel that fronts on a street.


Goals. Goals are broad statements of ideal future conditions that are desired by the community and contained in the comprehensive plan. For example, a community may have to goal of “providing an ample stock of affordable housing.”

Group Home. Group homes are residences for a variety of special populations in need of supervised living facilities. Individuals residing in group homes may be mentally or physically disabled, recovering substance abusers, teenaged mothers, or victims of domestic violence. Able-bodied elderly persons, college students, young professionals, and other people not related by blood, marriage, or adoption might also form groups that wish to live together. When such groups of unrelated persons seek housing in a single-family home, the question arises as to whether they are a “family” entitled to live in a residential unit in a single-family zoning district.


Historic District. An historic district is a regulatory overlay zone within which new developments must be compatible with that of the architecture of the historic structures within the districts. Alterations and improvements of historic structures must be made with minimum interference with the historic features of the building. The local legislature establishes standards that a historic preservation commission uses to permit, condition, or deny projects proposed in historic districts.

Historic Preservation Commission. An historic preservation commission is established to review proposed projects within historic districts for compliance with standards established for new development or alteration or improvement of historic buildings and landmarks.

Home Occupation. A home occupation is a business conducted in a residential dwelling unit that is incidental and subordinate to the primary residential use. Regulations of home occupations usually restrict the percentage of the unit that can be used for the occupation, exterior evidence of the business, and the amount of parking needed and traffic generated.

Home Rule Authority. Home rule authority gives local governments the power to adopt laws relating to their local property, affairs, and government, in addition to the powers specifically delegated to them by the legislature. The Municipal Home Rule Law gives a municipality the authority to regulate for the “protection and enhancement of its physical and visual environment” as well as for the “government, protection, order, conduct, safety, health, and well being of persons or property therein.” Zoning laws may also be adopted under Home Rule Authority.


Implementation Plan or Measures. Implementation plans coordinate all the related strategies that are to be carried out to achieve the objectives contained in the comprehensive plan. An implementation plan answers the questions: who, what, where, and how.

Incentive Zoning. Incentive zoning is a system by which zoning incentives are provided to developers on the condition that specific physical, social, or cultural benefits are provided to the community. Incentives include increases in the permissible number of residential units or gross square footage of development, or waivers of the height, setback, use, or area provisions of the zoning ordinance. The benefits to be provided in exchange may include affordable housing, recreational facilities, open space, day care facilities, infrastructures, or cash in lieu thereof.

Infrastructure. Infrastructures include utilities and improvements needed to support development in a community. Infrastructure includes water and sewage systems, lighting, drainage, parks, public buildings, roads and transportation facilities, and utilities.

Intermunicipal Agreements. Intermunicipal agreements are compacts among municipalities to perform functions together that they are authorized to perform independently. In the land use area, localities may agree to adopt compatible comprehensive plans and ordinances, as well as other land use regulations, and to establish joint planning, zoning, historic preservation, and conservation advisory boards or hire joint inspection and enforcement officers.

Involved Agency. An agency that has jurisdiction by law to fund, approve, or directly undertake an action, but does not have the primary responsibility for that action as is with the lead agency under the State Quality Environmental Review Act.


Judicial Review. Judicial review is the oversight by the courts of the decisions and processes of local land use agencies. It is governed by special statutory provisions that limit both actions against governmental bodies, in general, and against local land use decisions, in particular. The applicable rules of judicial review depend on the type of local body that is involved and the type of action that is challenged. The courts in New York have adopted fairly liberal rules of access to the courts, typically allowing adjacent and nearby property owners and associations of residents to challenge land use decisions that affect them in some special way.

Jurisdictional Defect. When a legislative action or a land use determination is taken without following a mandated procedure, such as referral to a county planning agency or the conduct of environmental review, the action or determination suffers from a jurisdictional defect and is void. Without following mandated procedures public bodies do not have jurisdiction to act.


Land Trust. A land trust is a not-for-profit organization, private in nature, organized to preserve and protect the natural and man-made environment by, among other techniques, creating conservation easements that restrict the use of real property.

Land Use Law. Land use law encompasses the full range of laws and regulations that influence or affect the development and conservation of the land. This law is intensely intergovernmental and interdisciplinary. In land use law there are countless intersections among federal, state, regional, and local statutes. It is significantly influenced by other legal regimes such as environmental, administrative, and municipal law.

Land Use Regulation [Local]. Local land use regulations are laws enacted by the local legislature for the regulation of any aspect of land use and community resource protection, including zoning, subdivision, special use permit or site plan regulation, or any other regulation that prescribes the appropriate use of property or the scale, location, or intensity of development.

Landmark Preservation Law. A landmark preservation law designates individual historical or cultural landmarks and sites for protection. It controls the alteration of landmarks and regulates some aspects of adjacent development to preserve the landmarks’ integrity.

Lead Agency. The lead agency is the “involved agency” under the State Environmental Quality Review Act that is principally responsible for undertaking, funding, or approving an action. Therefore the lead agency is responsible for determining whether an environmental impact statement is required in connection with the action and for the preparation and filing of the statement if one is required.

Local Board. See “Reviewing Board.”

Local Law. Local law is the highest form of local legislation. The power to enact local laws is granted by the constitution to local governments. Local laws, in this sense, have the same quality as acts of the state legislature, both being authorized by the state constitution. They must be adopted by the formalities required for the adoption of local laws.

Local Legislature. The local legislature adopts and amends the comprehensive plan, zoning and land use regulations, and sometimes retains the authority to issue certain permits or perform other administrative functions. The local legislature of a city is typically called the City Council, of a village, the Village Board of Trustees, and of a town, the Town Board.

Lot Area. Lot area is the total square footage of horizontal area included within the property lines. Zoning ordinances typically set a minimum required lot area for building in each zoning district.

Lot. A lot is a portion of a subdivision, plat, tract, or other parcel of land considered as a unit for the purpose of transferring legal title from one person or entity to another.


Master Plan. The term master plan is used synonymously by many to refer to the comprehensive plan. The statutory, official name for the community’s written plan for the future is the comprehensive plan.

Mediation. Mediation is a process of negotiation, generally used when a dispute exists among two or more parties, conducted by a trained mediator who works with all parties involved so that their true interests are identified and a resolution is achieved that responds effectively and fully to those interests.

Minutes. The minutes typically cover the important discussions, facts found, and actions taken at a meeting. The Open Meetings Law requires that the minutes provide a record of motions, proposals, and actions.

Mitigation Conditions. Conditions imposed by a reviewing body on a proposed development project or other action to mitigate its adverse impact on the environment.

Mixed Use. In some zoning districts multiple principal uses are permitted to coexist on a single parcel of land. Such uses may be permitted, for example, in neighborhood commercial districts, where apartments may be developed over retail space.

Moratorium. A moratorium suspends the right of property owners to obtain development approvals while the local legislature takes time to consider, draft, and adopt land use regulations or rules to respond to new or changing circumstances not adequately dealt with by its current laws. A moratorium is sometimes used by a community just prior to adopting a comprehensive plan or zoning law, or major amendment thereto.

Multifamily Housing. Most zoning maps contain districts where multifamily housing is permitted by the zoning law under the district regulations. Buildings with three or more dwelling units are permitted to be constructed, such as garden apartments or multiple story apartment buildings.

Municipal Clerk. The municipal clerk is the public official authorized by the local legislature to keep official records of the legislative and administrative bodies of the locality. Final determinations of reviewing boards ordinarily must be filed with the municipal clerk.


Negative Declaration (“neg dec”). A “neg dec” is a written determination by a lead agency, under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, that the implementation of the action as proposed will not result in any significant adverse environmental impacts. A “neg dec” concludes the environmental review process for an action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

Nonconforming Buildings. A building that was constructed prior to the adoption of the zoning law or zoning amendment that is not in accordance with the dimensional provisions, such as building height or setback requirements, of that law or amendment.

Nonconforming Use. A nonconforming use is a land use that is not permitted by a zoning law but which already existed at the time the zoning law or its amendment was enacted. Most nonconforming uses are allowed to continue but may not be expanded or enlarged.

Notice. Notice requirements are contained in state and local statutes. They spell out the number of days in advance of a public hearing that public notice must be given and the precise means that must be used. These may include publication in the official local newspaper and mailing or posting notices in prescribed ways. Failure to provide public notice is a jurisdictional defect and may nullify the proceedings.

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Objectives. Objectives are statements of attainable, quantifiable, intermediate-term achievements that help accomplish goals contained in the comprehensive plan. For example, an objective would be to achieve “the construction of 50 units of affordable housing annually until the year ____.”

Official Map. The official map is the adopted map of a municipality showing streets, highways, parks, drainage, and other physical features. The “Official Map” is final and conclusive with respect to the location and width of streets, highways, drainage systems, and parks shown thereon and is established to conserve and protect the public health, safety, and welfare.

Open Meetings Law. The Open Meetings Law is a state statute that requires local legislative, administrative, and quasi-judicial bodies to open all of their meetings to members of the public. This law applies to all meetings where a majority of the board members are present, except those meetings that are held as executive sessions.

Ordinance. An ordinance is an act of a local legislature taken pursuant to authority specifically delegated to local governments by the state legislature. The power of villages to adopt ordinances was eliminated in 1974. Technically, therefore, villages do not adopt, amend, or enforce zoning ordinances. Zoning provisions in villages are properly called zoning laws.

Original Jurisdiction. When an aggrieved party must appeal a determination to a quasi-judicial or judicial body in the first instance that body has original jurisdiction over that matter. The zoning board of appeals, for example, has original jurisdiction to hear appeals of the determinations of the zoning enforcement officer.

Overlay Zone. An overlay zone is a zone or district created by the local legislature for the purpose of conserving natural resources or promoting certain types of development. Overlay zones are imposed over existing zoning districts and contain provisions that are applicable in addition to those contained in the zoning law.


Parcel. A piece of property. See “Lot.”

Planned Unit Development (“PUD”). A planned unit development is an overlay zoning district that permits land developments on several parcels to be planned as single units and contain both residential dwellings and commercial uses. It is usually available to land owners as a mixed use option to single uses permitted as-of-right by the zoning ordinance.

Planning Board/Commission. Planning boards must consist of 5 to 7 members. Planning boards may be delegated reviewing board functions and a variety of advisory functions, including the preparation of the comprehensive plan, drafting zoning provisions, or suggesting site plan and subdivision regulations, in addition to other functions. One important purpose of the planning board’s advisory role is to provide an impartial and professional perspective on land use issues based on the long range needs of the community contained in the comprehensive plan or other local policy documents.

Plat. This is a site plan or subdivision map that depicts the arrangements of buildings, roads, and other services for a development.

Police Power. The police power is the power that is held by the state to legislate for the purpose of preserving the public health, safety, morals, and general welfare of the people of the state. The authority that localities have to adopt comprehensive plans, and zoning and land use regulations is derived from the state’s police power and delegated by the state legislature to its towns, villages, and cities.

Positive Declaration (“pos dec”). A positive declaration is a written determination by a lead agency, under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, that the implementation of the action as proposed is likely to have a significant adverse impact on the environment and that an environmental impact statement will be required.

Preliminary Plat Approval. Preliminary plat approval is the approval by the authorized local administrative body of a preliminary subdivision drawing or plat that shows the site conditions, subdivision lines, and proposed improvements as specified in the locality’s subdivision regulations.

Principal Use. A principal use is the primary use of a lot that is permitted under the district regulations in a zoning law. These regulations may allow one or more principal uses in any given district. Unless the district regulations allow mixed uses, only one principal use may be made of a single lot, along with uses that are accessory to that principal use.

Public Hearing. These hearings afford citizens affected by a reviewing board’s decision an opportunity to have their views heard before decisions are made. State statutes require that public hearings be held regarding the application for a variance or a subdivision approval. Public hearings regarding site plan applications and draft environmental impact statements may be required as a matter of local practice.

Public Services. Public services are those services provided by the municipal government for the benefit of the community, such as fire and police protection, education, solid waste disposal, street cleaning, and snow removal.


Quasi-Judicial. A term applied to some local administrative bodies that have the power to investigate facts, hold hearings, weigh evidence, draw conclusions, and use this information as a basis for their official decisions. These bodies adjudicate the rights of the parties appearing before the body. The zoning board of appeals serves in a quasi-judicial capacity when it hears appeals from the determination of the local zoning enforcement officer.


Record. Local boards must keep a detailed record of their deliberations in making decisions on site plan and subdivision applications and the issuance of variances and special permits. These records may be kept in narrative form rather than in verbatim transcript form. A clerk or secretary hired by the municipality often manages these records. The records should include the application and reports, studies, documents, and minutes of the board meetings.

Recreational Zoning. Recreational zoning is the establishment of a zoning district in which private recreational uses are the principal permitted uses. The types of recreational uses permitted include swimming, horse back riding, golf, tennis, and exercise clubs open to private members who pay dues and user fees or to the public on a fee basis.

Recusal. A term used when a board member has a conflict of interest and must abstain from voting on any issues relating to that private interest. The board member is said to be recusing himself from all deliberations on the matter.

Redaction. Redaction is done when a public record contains sensitive, private, or confidential information that is taken out of the document, or redacted, in a way that does not distort the meaning of the record. The practice of striking or otherwise taking out this type of material is called redaction.

Regulatory Takings. A regulatory taking is a regulation that is so intrusive that it is found to take private property for a public purpose without providing the land owner with just compensation.

Resolution. A resolution is ordinarily not a legislative act but a means by which a local legislature or other board expresses its policy or position on a subject.

Restrictive Covenant. An agreement in writing and signed by the owner of a parcel of land that restricts the use of the parcel in a way that benefits the owners of adjacent or nearby parcels. See “Conservation Easement.”

Reviewing Board. The administrative body charged with responsibility for reviewing, approving, conditioning, or denying applications for a specific type of land use such as variance, special use permit, or site plan or subdivision approval.

Rezoning. An act of the local legislature that changes the principal uses permitted on one or more parcels of land or throughout one or more zoning districts. Rezoning includes the amendment of the zoning map, as well as the use provisions in the district regulations applicable to the land that is rezoned.

Role of County Government. Functions carried out by county government that affect land use including the adoption of land use plans, public health reviews of plans for water supply and sewage disposal, planning reviews of certain local land use decisions, the development of county roads and projects including parks, the creation of Environmental Management Councils, Farmland Protection Boards, Soil and Water District Boards, and other entities, and the provision of technical and coordination sources in the land use area.


Scoping. A process under the State Quality Environmental Review Act by which the lead agency identifies the potentially significant adverse impacts related to the proposed use and how they are to be addressed in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This defines the scope of issues to be addressed in the draft EIS, including the content and level of detail of the analysis, the range of alternatives, the mitigation measures needed, as well as issues that do not need to be studied. Scoping provides a project sponsor with guidance on matters that must be considered and provides an opportunity for early participation by involved agencies and the public in the review of the proposal.

Screening. The act of placing landscape features, such as trees, bushes, shrubs, or man-made screens, such as fences or berms, to reduce the impact of development on nearby properties.

SEQRA. The State Environmental Quality Review Act requires local legislatures and land use agencies to consider, avoid, and mitigate significant environmental impacts of the projects that they approve, the plans or regulations they adopt, and the projects they undertake directly.

Setback. A setback restriction requires that no building or structure be located within a specified number of feet from a front, side, or rear lot line.

Sign Regulation. Local laws that regulate the erection and maintenance of signs and outdoor advertising with respect to their size, color, appearance, movement, illumination, and placement on structures or location on its ground.

Site Plan. A site plan shows the proposed development and use of a single parcel of land consisting of a map and all necessary supporting material.

Special Exception Permit. See “Special Use Permit.”

Special Use Permit. Special uses are allowed in zoning districts, but only upon the issuance of a special use permit subject to conditions designed to protect surrounding properties and the neighborhood from any possible negative impacts of the permitted use. Also called conditional use permit, special exception permit, and special permit.

Spot Zoning. The rezoning of a single parcel or a small area to benefit one or more property owners rather than carry out an objective of the comprehensive plan.

Statute of Limitations. A law that requires that an aggrieved party file a legal action in a quasi-judicial or judicial forum within a specified period or lose the right to file that action. Regarding many land use determinations, the period begins from the date the determination is filed with the municipal clerk.

Strategies. A set of actions to be undertaken to accomplish each objective contained in a comprehensive plan. To obtain the objective of “50 units of affordable housing” the plan may include as strategies: (1) Form a housing trust fund, and (2) Allow for accessory apartments in residential units.

Subdivision Plat. See “Plat.”

Subdivision. The subdivision of land involves the legal division of a parcel into a number of lots for the purpose of development and sale. The subdivision and development of individual parcels must conform to the provisions of local zoning which contain use and dimensional requirements for land development.


Taking. See “Regulatory Taking.”

Town Board. See “Local Legislature.”

Transfer of Development Rights (“TDR”). Provisions in a zoning law that allow for the purchase of the right to develop land located in a sending area and the transfer of these rights to land located in a receiving area.

Type I Action. This is an action, under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, that is more likely to have a significant negative impact on the environment than unlisted actions. They are listed as Type I Actions in the regulations of the DEC Commissioner. See also “Action.”

Type II Action. This is an action that is not subject to environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. Type II Actions are listed in the regulations of the DEC Commissioner. These actions have been determined not to have a significant impact on the environment or to be exempt from environmental review for other purposes. See also “Action.”


Unlisted Actions. These are all of the actions that are not listed as “Type I” or “Type II” actions for the purposes of the State Environmental Quality Review Act process. These actions are subject to review by the lead agency to determine whether they may cause significant adverse environmental impacts.

Use Districts. See “Zoning District.”

Use Variance. A variance that allows landowners to put their land to a use that is not permitted under the zoning law. This type of variance may be granted only in cases of unnecessary hardship. To prove unnecessary hardship, the owner must establish that the requested variance meets four statutorily prescribed conditions. If a parcel of land is zoned for single-family residential use and the owner wishes to operate a retail business, the owner must apply to the zoning board of appeals for a use variance.


Variance. This is a form of administrative relief that allows property to be used in a way that does not comply with the literal requirements of the zoning ordinance. There are two basic types of variances: use variances and area variances.

Vested Rights. Vested rights are found when a landowner has received approval on a project and has undertaken substantial construction and made substantial expenditures in reliance on that approval. The landowner’s right to develop has vested and cannot be taken away by a zoning change by the legislature.

Village Board of Trustees. See “Local Legislature.”


Watershed. A geographical area within which rain water and other liquid effluents seep and run into common surface or subsurface water bodies such as streams, rivers, lakes, or aquifers.

Wetland. Wetlands may be either freshwater or tidal. They are typically marked by waterlogged or submerged soils or support a range of vegetation peculiar to wetlands. They provide numerous benefits for human health and property as well as critical habitat for wildlife and are generally regulated by either federal, state, or local laws.


Zoning Board of Appeals. Under state statutes, a zoning board of appeals must be formed when a local legislature adopts its zoning law. They must consist of three to five members. The essential function of the zoning board of appeals is to grant variances. In this capacity it protects landowners from the unfair application of the laws in particular circumstances. The zoning board of appeals also hears appeals from the decisions of the zoning enforcement officer or building inspector when interpretations of the zoning ordinance are involved.

Zoning District. A zoning district is a portion of the community designated by the local zoning ordinance for certain kinds of land uses, such as single-family homes on lots no smaller than one acre in size or neighborhood commercial uses. Only these primary permitted land uses, their accessory uses, and any special uses permitted in the zoning district may be placed on the land in that portion of the community.

Zoning Enforcement Officer. This is the local administrative official who is responsible for enforcing and interpreting the zoning code. The local building inspector may be designated as the zoning enforcement officer. Land use applications are submitted to the zoning enforcement officer who determines whether proposals are in conformance with the use and dimensional requirements of the zoning law.

Zoning Law or Ordinance. State law allows city councils and town boards to adopt zoning provisions by local law or ordinance. Since 1974, village boards of trustees have not had the authority to adopt legislation by ordinance, only by local law. Technically, zoning regulations adopted by villages are zoning laws. Only city and town legislatures may adopt zoning ordinances. Zoning regulations, however, are often referred to as zoning ordinances regardless of these technical distinctions.

Zoning Map. This map is approved at the time that the local legislature adopts a zoning ordinance. On this map, the zoning district lines are overlaid on a street map of the community. This map divides the community into districts. Each district will carry a designation that refers to the zoning code regulations for that district. By referring to this map, it is possible to identify the use district within which any parcel of land is located. Then, by referring to the text of the zoning code, it is possible to discover the uses that are permitted within that district and the dimensional restrictions that apply to building on that land. The zoning map, implemented through the text of the ordinance, constitutes a blueprint for the development of the community over time.

© 1998. Created by the Land Use Law Center. All rights reserved.