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Reader question: Can I block building or development near my French property?

The Local France
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Reader question: Can I block building or development near my French property?
This aerial picture taken on October 29, 2022 shows houses under construction at a housing estate in Hede-Bazouges, western France. (Photo by Damien MEYER / AFP)

France is known for its many spectacular views, from the Alps to rolling fields, making it a popular location for foreigners to buy property - but what happens if someone wants to build on your little slice of paradise?

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The first step is to check - ideally before purchasing - how the land around you is zoned. If your property looks out on a field that is designated as a development area it will be difficult (although not impossible, see below) to challenge plans to build on it.

Local zoning plans in France

Charlie Cailloux, the legal advisor for the PAP.fr property website, told Franceinfo in an interview why it is always wise to consult the "plan local d’urbanisme (PLU)" when buying property in France. A plan local d'urbanisme - or local zoning plan - is a set of legal documents that outline all of the rules for urban planning in a given municipality. 

"It answers the questions: where can we build? What can we build? And how can we build it?" Cailloux explained to Franceinfo.

A PLU is divided into four different zones: urban, to-be developed, agricultural and natural.

The local zoning plan can inform you where there are plans for new construction projects, as well as other designations such as historic districts.

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Many historic districts have strict rules on what you can do to the exterior of your property. Cailloux gave Franceinfo the example of shutters on the popular island, Ile de Ré: "in that example, the PLU requires that all shutters be painted green, and the colour is clearly defined in a colour chart".

There are several sections in a PLU, including the appendices which gather all local plans regarding the prevention and possibility of natural disasters, like flooding or forest fires. Depending on how detailed the municipality's PLU is, it may also contain information and maps regarding noise pollution as well.

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In December 2020, the PLU officially replaced its precursor, the 'Plan d'occupation des sols' (POS), which was previous the urban zoning document used across France. 

How can I consult the PLU?

Anyone can consult a local zoning plan. The first step is to visit your local mairie (town hall). While big cities and urban areas typically have the PLU published on their website, it is often necessary to go in person to the mairie in villages and towns.

As the PLU can be complicated and difficult to understand, it is advisable to make an appointment with the urbanisation department to get assistance in going through the PLU. When going through the document, you might be able to take photos to consult later, though you should ask permission first.

Depending on the size of your municipality, you may also be able to sit down with the mayor - in rural France, the mayor plays an important role in many aspects of village-life, including the approval of building permits, and as such is a great person to ask about any planned building projects in the area.

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If your city or town has the PLU online, it would be on the official town hall website under the "urbanisme" section - when checking online, be sure to verify that you are looking at the most recent version of the document.

What do the four different zones mean?

The urban zone, also called "Zone U", concerns areas that have already been urbanised. In this zone, new building projects are (in most cases) allowed. 

To be considered an urban zone, the land must be serviced by a public road and there must be electricity and water networks. If the area does not have a collective sewage network, then the land must be classified as suitable for individual sewage systems.

The 'to-be urbanised' or 'to-be developed' zone, also called "Zone AU", are areas that are still in their 'natural' state (like a field) but can be developed at a later date. Typically this land is located near one or more urban zones.

Agricultural zones, or "Zone A" are reserved for agricultural, pastoral or forestry activity. Simply being a farmer does not give one the right to build in an agricultural zone. While some construction might be allowed on a case-by-case basis, it cannot be deemed detrimental to the preservation of the natural space or landscape.

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Certain municipalities in France also have agricultural zones that are be classified as ZAP (zone agriculture protegé), or protected agriculture zones. These are nationally recognised and maintained even in the event that local zoning laws change. Construction projects in ZAPs is not allowed.

Finally, there is the Zone N, or the protected natural or forest zones. Typically, building in these areas is not allowed as they are meant to protect a natural landscape or local flora and fauna.

How can I object to a construction project near my property?

You can object to a planned construction project near you - for example new houses, commercial buildings, wind turbines or solar farms - but doing so involves filing a dossier with proof that the new building project would have a direct and detrimental impact on your own home and your ability to use and enjoy your property.

You must prove that you live in a close enough vicinity to the place where the new construction permit has been requested, and you must prove that it impacts you personally - whether that be due to a loss of sunlight, degradation of the view, or noise pollution, for example. 

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The person seeking to do the construction project is required to post a sign (visible from the public road and larger than 80cm by 120 cm in size) demonstrating that they have building permits, and outlining key information such as the file reference number, the nature of the project and the height of the building (if applicable), among other things.

If you want to appeal, you must do so within two months of the first day that the sign is posted on the land, and it should be filed with an administrative judge.

The person planning the project is not required to contact neighbours directly, so it is up to you to spot the sign and then file your appeal.

Another option is to send a registered letter to the mayor of your municipality asking them to cancel their decision to issue the building permit. If this is unsuccessful, you may consider the litigious route, but it is often best to start first with your local town hall.

Taking the example of a wind turbine - you will have to demonstrate the precise and substantial ways that you are to be affected by the project (which cannot be simply that you think turbines are ugly).

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Wind turbines and solar panels

For projects such as wind turbines or solar panels - both of which are increasingly seen in rural areas as France tries to build up its renewable energy sector - the size and power of the project determines whether or not the person seeking to construct them will need a building permit.

For a project with solar panels that will generate over 1,000 kilowatts of electricity, a building permit must be issued. This would cover an entire field of solar panels, but probably not just a couple of panels in a field or garden (although if you are installing them on your house check whether there are local building regulations on this).

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To install a wind turbine that is taller than 12 metres (which almost all of them are) a building permit must also be issued, and therefore posted prior to the start of construction.

What about changing the zoning plans? Can I contest the PLU itself?

Generally, the PLU is revised every ten years, though this is not a legal obligation.

It is possible to send a letter to your mayor asking for a modification of the zoning.

The procedure for modifying the zoning must be initiated by the mayor or the head of the inter-communal zoning area. It takes around eight months. There are options for simplified modifications, which can take about one month and generally involve a public opinion inquiry or the launching of a consultation.

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