Zoning ordinances are the most complex set of regulations most cities produce. For example, the Zoning Ordinance for the City of Plano, Texas is 329 pages long – and it is not an exception. Navigating zoning rules and regulations can be a challenge in any municipality.
This guide on how to get a zoning permit points you in the right direction. While every city or county has slightly different requirements and processes for getting a zoning permit, there is enough overlap that the steps outlined below will serve you well.
What’s In This Guide?
Zoning Ordinances: Hassle or Help?
Do you need a zoning permit?
Zoning basics – Know your Zone
What is a zoning permit?
Zoning vs building permit
How much does a zoning permit cost?
The importance of site plans
How to get a zoning permit
Applying for a zoning waiver
Zoning Ordinances: Hassle or Help?
Historically, they’ve been both.
Zoning laws have a long and varied history in the United States. In some regions, they were used as a tool of segregation. For example, in 1885, San Francisco banned laundries in most neighborhoods to keep Chinese out. The Supreme Court struck down the law a year later.
In large cities, they developed to prevent tall buildings from being built that would obscure the view and sunlight of homes in the surrounding area.
By the early 20th Century, the driving force of zoning were homeowners and developers that demanded regulation of what types of businesses and buildings could be located in residential areas. According to CityLab, “In 1909, Los Angeles experimented with a city-wide regulation that kept heavy industry and commerce out of certain neighborhoods.” This first-of-its-kind regulation became the standard for protecting property values across the US.
The bottom line is that your city or county isn’t trying to play god or limit your freedoms, though it certainly imposes limits. It’s zoning ordinances are there to protect the property values of local residents and business owners.
A hassle? Yes. But a helpful one.
Do you Need a Zoning Permit?
There’s no reason to go down this road if it isn’t necessary. Zoning permits are most commonly required for these types of projects:
- Building a new home
- Demolishing a home or outbuilding
- Building an addition – up or out
- Changing a home from single-family to multi-family or back again
- Changing a home to a business, non-residential use
- Operating a business in a residential home
- Constructing an outbuilding over a set number of square feet
- Adding a deck, patio, hot tub or inground swimming pool (or taking out the pool)
- Altering the footprint or height of a building
- Changing the façade/exterior in a significant way
- Changing the building’s use such as from office to retail, retail to manufacturing or manufacturing to a restaurant
- Altering the number of units in a building
- Adding signage that is different than what exists
- Doing major mechanical or utility upgrades
Check your local city hall website or call the development office for details where you live.
Zoning Basics – Know your Zone
Zoning determines how land can be used. The Zoning Board has a lot of power to determine the future of a city or town. In older towns, imposing a master zoning plan on long-established neighborhoods and city-centers is a challenge that takes decades to implement with lots of businesses and property uses being “grandfathered” in.
Where suburban sprawl is eating up farmland, zoning plans can be established before the land is annexed and residential/commercial/industrial development begins.
In any setting, zoning’s purposes, according to the Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission, is to “protect public health, safety and welfare by regulating the use of land and controlling the type, size and height of buildings.” Most cities also state a distinct purpose for each zone.
Zone Differences: Zoning is more than simple division into agricultural, residential, commercial and industrial sections of a city.
For example, the Village of Schaumburg, IL is a medium-sized town in western Chicagoland.
Schaumburg has 20 Zoning types including one for agriculture. Six types are Residential zones based on lot size with one type for dedicated to multi-family dwellings. Five zone types are Business zones divided into Limited Office, Planned Office, Retail/Service and so forth.
Know your Zone: Why do we go into this amount of detail? Two reasons:
1) If you own property and plan to use it yourself or rent it for use, it is important to know which zone the property is in.
Each zone has unique zoning language that will govern how property within the zone can be used. In Schaumburg, B-1 Limited Office is different than B-3 Planned Office and very different than B-4 Retail and Service.
2) If you are planning to rent property, then you must look for space in a zone that allows the type of business you plan to open.
If you work off the wrong set of zoning rules and regulations, it could lead to costly errors like getting stuck with a long-term lease on a building you can’t use or having your business closed for violating the zoning.
Mistakes can be costly. A religious organization leased a building in Mason, MI a few years ago and proceeded with expensive renovations. It turned a vacant laundromat into a church building. The organization never applied for a zoning permit.
Shortly before opening for services, the organization was notified that it needed a zoning permit. When it applied, it was denied on the grounds that “houses of worship” were not allowed in the commercial zone. Fortunately for the organization, office space was allowed. Since the church offices were also in the renovated building, the new application for a zoning permit which stated it would be used for offices was approved.
You might not be so lucky or get by on a technicality – and that’s why this step is vitally important.
What is a Zoning Permit?
A zoning permit is the permit issued by the city that allows you to use the property or building for your intended purpose.
It is the city’s official approval for you to proceed with your project – as long as it stays true to the project that was approved.
It starts with an application.
Zoning Application: The Zoning Application, or Zoning Project Application as Berkeley, CA and other cities call it, is a multi-page questionnaire about what your project entails.
Berkeley’s application is very similar to most.
It first requires you to complete basic information about:
- Project Address to determine what Zone it is in
- Project Description
- Property Owner’s Name & Contact Info
The application’s initial 19 questions ask whether your project includes components such as:
- New structures or additions, demolition or exterior alterations?
- More than 50 cubic yards of grading?
- Creation of 5 or more dwellings or work units?
- A site with a history of soil or groundwater contamination?
- Federal funding?
Zoning vs Building Permit
Zoning is about whether a project fits into the neighborhood. Are businesses of the type you want to open allowed there? Is the house you want to build – or the type of renovations you want to undertake – allowed?
Building codes don’t determine what type of structure can be built or what modifications to an existing structure can be made. Those are usually zoning issues.
The building permit is issued only after a zoning permit has been obtained. This permit ensures that any structures, as the City of Berkeley states, “are constructed to an appropriate standard [building code] and are safe for the uses intended.”
Zoning Permit first – Then the Building Permit
How Much Does a Zoning Permit Cost?
There are set fees and fees based on the value of the proposed work. Municipalities consider “value” as the easiest metric for estimating how much work will be required of the zoning board, inspectors and administrative staff.
Denver, CO, like most cities, has set zone permitting fees and calculated fees based on value.
Set fees include:
- Zoning Permit to Establish Use: $20
- Zoning Permit Review: $20
- Rezoning Application: $90
Calculated fees are as follows:
- For $1 to $500 projects: $10
- For $501 to $2,000 projects: $25
- For $2,001 to $50,000 projects: $35 plus $0.50 per $1,000 in valuation
As the project gets more expensive from there, the set fee increases but the $0.50 per $1,000 in valuation remains the same.
Spend $10,000 on a deck, and you’ll pay the $20 Zoning Permit Review for starters. Then you’ll pay $35 plus $0.50 per $1,000, or $5 for $10,000.
Your total fees would be $20 + $35 + $5 = $60.
Note that a building permit will come with its own set of fees for plan review, inspections and administrative costs.
Site Plans and Zoning Permits
You’ll need a site plan for both the zoning permit and the building permit.
Site Plan definition: A site plan, also called a plot plan or site-area plan or similar, is a drawing that shows how you plan to change, alter, improve or build on a piece of property.
It allows the zoning board members to tour the property and:
1 – See what is currently there
2 – See from your site plan how you want to change it
A site visit plus a site plan give the zoning board a “before and after” understanding of the project.
Major projects: In fact, you might need a series of site plans. That’s true in Plano, Texas. According to the 329-page Zoning Ordinance mentioned earlier, you’ll need three site or plot plans (synonymous terms) that show increasing detail.
Site plan 1: Also called a Concept Plan, it “establishes a general schematic for site development.” What do you have in mind? How will the parking lot or driveway be accessed? Where will parking be?
It answers the simple question, “Is this project feasible or possible in this location?” If you believe you’ll need 40 parking spots and the lot will allow for 20, with overflow being on neighborhood streets, the zoning board will likely deny the project.
If the Concept Plan is approved, the next plan should be prepared.
Site plan 2: This might be called a Preliminary Site Plan. While a concept plan can be hand-drawn in many cases, this plan should be prepared and printed by a pro.
The preliminary site plan will show building location and layout, other site improvements, parking and walkways, green areas and landscaping and other details your city might require. Adjoining streets should be shown and labeled, and True North arrow included.
Small towns and cities are often good-to-go with this type of site plan. Large cities need the third type.
In those places, once the preliminary plan has been approved, you’ll need a very detailed site plan prepared.
Site Plan 3: The final Site Plan must include most or all of the following – it varies by municipality:
Owner and contact information
Streets and True North arrow
Drawing scale (1/4” = 10’, for example)
Building locations and shape
Setbacks (distance of buildings from property lines)
Driveways, parking and walkways
Topography, where there is significant slope
Seasonal or permanent waterways
Storm sewer locations
Location of utility installation such as pipes and underground cables
The purpose is to ensure compliance with the development regulations formulated for the city for greenspace, run-off into storm sewers and a host of infrastructure and environmental concerns.
It also demonstrates that the property modifications protect public safety (no hidden alleys coming out from between buildings and crossing a sidewalk, for example) and are harmonious with the surrounding use of the land.
Steps to Getting a Zoning Permit
Now we get to the details. We hope the information so far has increased your understanding of zoning and its use in cities.
Here are the steps to obtaining a zoning permit.
- Know the Local Zoning Ordinance
Do you have to read a 330-page ordinance? Hopefully not. Once you obtain the ordinance, you might be able to locate the applicable information.
But as we’ve stated, you certainly don’t want to head in a wrong direction with your project out of the gate. At minimum, you’ll waste time. At worst, you’ll waste money and other resources.
Many Zoning Ordinances can be found online at your city or county website.
If you’re working with a builder or developer, that company should know the local ordinance regulations that apply to your project. It won’t hurt, though, to ask them to show you “chapter and verse” in the zoning ordinance that allows or disallows the project you have planned.
- Find the Right Zone or Know the Zone you Have
If you have property, review the specific zoning ordinance regulations. Remember: They change from zone to zone. That’s the reason for different zones.
What’s OK in one residential or commercial one might be prohibited in the others. There are overlaps, but be safe, not sorry.
If you don’t own property, then the next step is to find a zone that allows what you intend to do before you rent or purchase land, a home or a commercial building.
- Get a Zoning Application
Most are downloadable from the city’s website.
If not, or alternatively, stop by to pick up an application. You might have a chance to get questions answered from an official at this time.
The application will likely have a Checklist of all the drawings, documentation and other paperwork required to submit with the application.
- Get Your Site Plan Produced.
A site plan is required as part of the zoning permit application in most cities.
- Have Blueprints Made – if Needed
You’ll need them for new construction and modification to an existing building that changes its footprint and/or height.
The official Checklist might also ask for landscape plans, architectural elevations and a site survey. Very large projects often require a feasibility study. A study might be required if sensitive wetlands are located near the project site.
- Get Legal Counsel
Experienced, local real estate attorneys should know the zoning ordinance like the back of their hand. Find one that does.
Before you apply for a zoning permit, spend $100-$350 to have an attorney review the application and the applicable zoning regulations to make sure you have the right zone, right use for the zone, right paperwork and a properly filled-out application.
You might feel more comfortable hiring an attorney earlier in the project to walk you through the process for a large, complex project. Doing so will produce higher legal fees, but some will consider that well worth the guidance and advice excellent counsel provides.
- Submit your Application, and Pay the Fees
Multiple copies of the application and/or some of the paperwork might be required. Find this out – it should be in the Checklist or other information.
Not submitting the proper number of copies will cause delays. Since zoning boards in many cities meet just once per month, and you want to get on the schedule as quickly as possible.
- Attend the Public Hearing, if Required
In most cases, you’ll have to attend the scheduled zoning board meeting. It might be a formality, if the project is simple, but you never know.
The board might have detailed questions. If your project is complex, be prepared. You might want your contractor there to answer technical questions. If you believe your project fits zoning regulations but you expect pushback from the board, having your attorney there might also help.
You don’t want the meeting to be adversarial, but you do want to be assertive in stating your position that your application should be approved.
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