Understanding nonconformity: Are you ‘granfathered’ in?

Properties that qualify as nonconforming often have particular regulations that affect how an owner can make changes to the property. Understanding these regulations is important in order to avoid potential conflict with local government.

A nonconforming use, building or parcel is a use of land, a structure, or a parcel that was lawfully in existence prior to the adoption or amendment of the zoning ordinance that made it nonconforming. These are often referred to as grandfathered in or grandparented in.

In communities across Michigan, there are many homes, businesses, and parcels that have been grandfathered in under nonconforming status, since they were built or established prior to zoning taking effect. If you own a nonconforming use, structure or parcel, there are a few things you should know and consider before planning or making any changes.

Nonconformities are allowed to continue into the future in the same manner and same extent as they existed at the time they became nonconforming. A nonconforming property can be sold and the new owner is permitted to continue its use in the same fashion as the previous owner without any new zoning approvals. However, if a change in a nonconforming use, building, or parcel is proposed, it must conform to ordinance requirements. The ordinance should have established standards and procedures for treatment of nonconformities (the basic objective is gradual elimination of nonconformities). The three most basic types of regulation address enlargement, reconstruction and substitution.

Enlargement, expansion or extension of nonconforming uses is generally restricted because each is usually contrary to the intent of the ordinance. Many communities prohibit any enlargement or expansion of nonconforming uses because that usually entrenches the use, when the ordinance objective is for nonconforming uses to either go away, or even better, changed to conform to the ordinance.

Reconstruction of a nonconforming building is usually prohibited if it is damaged greater than 50 percent. There are various ways of measuring damage and the method selected should be clearly spelled out in the zoning ordinance. This method provides a great opportunity for reconstruction in a manner that conforms to the ordinance and therefore replaces a nonconforming building with a conforming one.

Substitution of one nonconforming use for another is usually allowed if the change is more conforming or no less conforming, allowing for the property to move closer to conformity over time with district requirements.

Most nonconforming provisions are administered by your local zoning administrator. Ordinances, however, vary dramatically with regard to nonconforming requirements. Consequently, it is important to become familiar with the unique requirements in your zoning ordinance by reading the ordinance and speaking with your zoning administrator about the particulars of your nonconforming status. Michigan State University Extension’s nationally recognized Michigan Citizen Planner program addresses nonconformity in greater detail.

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