land use

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“Land use” is a term that is used to describe the different purposes land may be used for. This includes both economic and cultural uses of land. Common types of land use include:

  • Agricultural
  • Residential
  • Industrial
  • Commercial
  • Recreational

Land use is a description of the purpose the land is being put to, not a description of what is currently happening with the land. For example, a plot of land used for forestry may be physically very similar to a neighboring plot of land used for hiking and outdoor recreation, despite having a very dissimilar land use.  

“Land use laws”, or “zoning” refers to the regulations that proscribe certain uses of land in designated zones. In early colonial America, few regulations existed to control the use of land. However, as the "frontier" disappeared, and society shifted from rural to urban, public land regulation became important to local communities wishing to control industry, commerce, and housing within their boundaries. 

The first zoning ordinance was passed in New York City in 1916. By the 1930s, most states had adopted zoning laws. In the 1970s, concerns about the environment and historic preservation led to further regulation. Today, land use regulation occurs on the federal, state, and local zoning ordinances.  Two major federal laws have been passed in the last half century that limit the use of land significantly. These are the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (embodied today in 16 U.S.C. 461 et seq.) and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.).

A further type of land use regulation exists through private contracts. These land use covenants are often created by private developers and enforced by private actions. Private actions to enforce land use covenants are typically either:

  • suits brought by one neighbor against another, 
  • suits brought by a public official against a neighboring landowner on behalf of the public, 
  • or suits involving individuals who share ownership of a particular parcel of land. 

In these situations, judicial decisions and enforcement of private land-use arrangements can reinforce public regulation, and achieve forms and levels of control that regulatory zoning cannot.

Federal Material

U.S. Constitution

  • Fifth Amendment
  • Fourteenth Amendment
  • CRS Annotated Constitution

Federal Statutes

  • U.S. Code:
    • Title 30 - Mineral Lands and Mining
    • Title 43 - Public Lands

Federal Regulations

  • Code of Federal Regulations:
    • Title 30 - Mineral Resources
    • Title 36 - Parks, Forest and Public Property
    • Title 43 - Public Lands: Interior

Federal Judicial Decisions

  • U.S. Supreme Court:
    • Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council
    • Other Land Use Decisions

Key Internet Sources

  • Federal Agencies:
    • Department of Interior
    • Bureau of Land Management
    • Environmental Protection Agency
    • National Rural Development Partnership
    • Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • LandUse (CIESIN)
  • Historic Preservation (PreserveNet)
  • ABA Section of Real Property, Probate & Trust Law
  • New York City Zoning Handbook
  • Center for Urban Policy Research (Rutgers)
  • Urban Planning, 1794-1918: An International Anthology of Articles, Conference Papers, and Reports
  • American Planning Association
  • Congress for the New Urbanism
  • International Federation for Housing and Planning
  • Lincoln Institute of Land Policy
  • National Association of Regional Councils
  • Urban Land Institute

[Last updated in July of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team