Illustration: Jonathan Carlson
In the small community of Quincy, Massachusetts, the zoning manual runs nearly 80 pages of single-spaced type and contains upward of 200 separate rules. That's not unusual: In just about every town, zoning regulations fill a volume as thick as the local phone book. Some deal with the broad land-use ordinances establishing commercial, industrial, and residential zones. Others dictate the size or type of house that can be built on a lot. But most cover matters of minute detail, from how steep a driveway can be to the number of kitchens a house is permitted to have.

There are good reasons for the vast number and specificity of zoning regulations. A carefully crafted set of rules can prevent urban sprawl and over-development. It can also maintain the character of a community or ensure that historic homes survive in their original state. In some cases, zoning regulations are designed to attract new industry, more retail outlets, and a larger tax base. But the welter of zoning rules can easily trip up unsuspecting homeowners. "More than a few people have been surprised by a zoning law that they didn't know existed," says John Mixon, author of Texas Municipal Zoning Law. "And often that's an expensive surprise."

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