Friday, January 25, 2008

Zoning Law enacted

Yesterday, Alan Barak, Esq., counsel for the Zoning Board, gave a lecture on the new Saipan Zoning Law of 2007. While the Zoning Law will be referenced at 10 CMC §3511 (PL 15-29), it is not yet in the new books and will be too big to fit, so the best bet is to go to and download or order a copy. This law was enacted to improve the public health, safety and welfare of the people of the CNMI. While the actual requirements of landscaping and building setbacks will serve to beautify and de-clutter certain areas, the law is purposely not based on aesthetics but rather on specific, quantifiable requirements. In addition, private homeowners may continue to make changes to their homes without concern that they will be violating zoning laws, and this includes building additional houses on family land which may not have road access. (See Section 1304: private single family dwellings not required to obtain a zoning permit).

Several very important points were touched upon, and I’ll try to sum them up here. First, there will be no variances awarded, and that goes especially for residential areas. This is because the purpose of a variance is not to change the current zoning scheme. However, a variance may be requested if the use fits into the character of a zone where it seems to belong, but for some reason it is not provided for specifically in the law. Second, non-conforming use property will be amortized for the life of the investment and then extinguished. However, it will be possible for nonconforming uses to convert or legalize. (See Section 1208). It was suggested that non-conforming use owners may want to register their non-conforming property before February 1, 2008 so that there is no question that the use was in effect before the implementation of the law. Third, there are a number of uses which are marked “conditional” in the law. This means that the property owner will have to ask permission and make a case before the zoning board. If, however, a property owner can convince the surrounding parcel owners to agree with a conditional use, the zoning board will accept the use. Fourth, there will be many situations where it is necessary to refer to multiple uses or multiple zones (the example was given of a ball park with a kiosk selling food and liquor). Each use and zone must be examined to determine whether the law is satisfied. Lastly, time lines have been built into the law so that prompt decisions will be rendered by the zoning board. (See Article 14).

All in all, the law looks to be very straightforward and well written. It contains tables of uses along with area by area maps to easily locate use zones, and it has a comprehensive table of contents. Developments other than single family homes will require a zoning permit. Accordingly, the zoning board suggests that owners who are planning to build contact the board first so that they can be sure to conform to the law up front instead of having to make costly changes later down the line.

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